The W-Word

Here is the simple bargain that nearly everyone supports: more timber harvests counterbalanced by more protected areas, including wilderness.

“If we’re going to ramp up timber harvest levels, we also need to identify the areas where other values, like rare habitats, wilderness, and backcountry recreation, will continue to be represented in the future,” says SELC’s Sam Evans.

Timber industry leaders have generally seen this as a good deal. They believe that broader backing for timber harvests can be achieved if they also support wilderness protections for special areas of the forest. However, an outspoken few have been unwilling to support any new wilderness, mainly because it prohibits logging and motorized vehicles.

“How are we gonna get a 500-pound bear out of a wilderness area?” asks David Whitmire, a member of the Stakeholders’ Forum. “Wilderness also invites another class of people in here.”

22 percent of Western North Carolina is national forest, and some locals resent the lost tax revenue and demographic changes that the national forests have brought.

Both Whitmire and Ruffed Grouse Society chapter president Jim Gray also believe that wilderness reduces the availability of game species like deer and grouse.

“People have this Disney image of critters all happy in the deep forest, but deer and grouse like open areas, too,” says Gray. According to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the numbers of ruffed grouse and deer harvested from national forests have been trending downward. Gray blames the declining numbers on too many protected areas and not enough logging.

Gray and others have led efforts to pass anti-wilderness resolutions in 12 conservative-leaning counties across Western North Carolina.

But one county passed a pro-wilderness resolution: Buncombe County, the most populous county in the mountains and home to the largest city in Western North Carolina.

The Buncombe County Commission unanimously supported a resolution to recommend wilderness for the Big Ivy section of the Pisgah-Nantahala, located about 20 miles northwest of Asheville. Big Ivy includes the Craggy Gardens area and is the most photographed spot along the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s also home to 70-foot waterfalls, dozens of rare and endangered species, and one of the largest old-growth forests in the East.

The Big Ivy wilderness proposal has received overwhelming public support. Hundreds attended the County Commissioners meeting to speak unanimously in support of the wilderness resolution. A year earlier, over 400 Big Ivy supporters packed a community meeting with the Forest Service, many wearing “Don’t Cut Big Ivy” t-shirts. Nearly all spoke in favor of permanently protecting Big Ivy from logging.Even stridently anti-wilderness campaigners Jim Gray and David Whitmire have voiced general support for wilderness in Big Ivy.

So far, however, the Forest Service has not protected Big Ivy from logging. Instead, it has targeted one-third of Big Ivy for logging-priority management.

“Big Ivy is a test case for the forest planning process,” says Jeremy Brookshire, a carpenter who lives in the Big Ivy community. “Does the Forest Service really respond to public input, or is it just going through the motions?”

There is overwhelming public, political, and scientific support for permanently protecting Big Ivy, says Brookshire. “So why doesn’t the preliminary forest plan draft reflect that?”

One possible explanation is that the Forest Service doesn’t want wilderness in Big Ivy—or anywhere else.

Forest Service officials say that wilderness “takes tools of out their toolbox” and constrains them from conducting sustainable forest restoration. The Forest Service also generates revenue by harvesting timber. The Forest Service is financially and institutionally motivated to cut down forests, which is prohibited in wilderness. The Forest Service is also getting intense political pressure not to recommend any new wilderness.