Our Appalachian Mountains are truly a national treasure. Those soft, forested waves that seem to go on forever have not only shaped our communities, but our very way of life.
In Tennessee alone, tourism is a driving force in our economy. Visitors come to hike in our parks, raft down raging rivers, and wind down scenic roads. Lovers of bluegrass or country music also know that both these genres sprung up in the hills and hollows of East Tennessee.
Even as we ourselves stop to take in a scenic Smokies view, lumber our way up a winding trail in the Cherokee National Forest, or marvel at the geologic formations of Big South Fork, it is easy to take what we have for granted. Over a million acres of public land stretch across our state alone, including land managed by the national park service, federally-designated wilderness areas, state parks and forests, wildlife management areas and refuges, and state natural areas. If not for the dedication, perseverance, and love of individuals who fought to have these lands protected, many of our Appalachian treasures would no longer be with us.
The gorges and rocky cliffs of the Big South Fork would be hidden under a lifeless lake. What little remained of the Smokies’ old-growth forests would long ago have been boarded at a saw mill. Vacation homes and cabins would be found on the slopes of Roan Mountain. Rare and endemic species such as the Citco darter would be extinct. Yes, we truly owe these people a lifetime of thanks for saving the best of our region’s geologic and natural treasures.
Currently, it seems there has been a significant push against the formation of new public lands throughout the country. A recent bid to create a new national park in the Monangahela National Forest of West Virginia was shot down by the very senator who spurred the National Park Service to survey the area, while the designation of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine was fought against despite being land that was willingly donated. Even as politicians on both sides hold our national treasures at arms length in favor of land exploitation by large corporations, local and grassroots efforts continue to obtain new land for the creation of parks and protected areas.
Here in Tennessee we have seen the creation of two new state parks in the last four years: Rocky Fork in 2012 and Seven Islands State Birding Park in 2014. While the land at Seven Islands was already protected in the past as a county park, Rocky Fork was in danger of development for many years. Privately owned, the pristine mountain valley located in the Unaka Mountains of Unicoi County could have been logged, or individual parcels sold and vacation homes developed on the steep slopes. Instead, a local effort combined with the Conservation Fund to purchase 2,036 acres of land for the creation of the new park. An additional 8,000+ acres were purchased by the National Forest Service and added to Cherokee National Forest.
While planned facilities such as a visitor center and campground are still in the making, that shouldn’t deter you from visiting our 55th state park. A small parking area located just off Rocky Fork Road provides access to hiking trails that explore almost the entirety of the new park. Whitehouse Cliffs Trail climbs to an overlook providing a sweeping view of the valley, while the Rocky Fork Trail meanders alongside the park’s namesake stream. The Appalachian Trail is easily reached via a short connector trail, providing even more exploration for those who are adventurous.
Across the mountain in North Carolina, the soaring peak of Elk Knob holds a commanding presence over the surrounding landscape. The nearly-mile-high peak is home to rare and ecologically significant plant communities, as well as an abundance of natural wildlife. In the early 2000s, the mountain was threatened with a housing development that would have irreversibly damaged the ecosystem. That’s when another endeavor by locals and the Conservancy Fund managed to purchase more than 3,000 acres to permanently preserve the area. Today, Elk Knob State Park remains largely untouched, as the original goal was to keep the park in its natural state. A newly-constructed hiking trail leads to the mountain peak, offering views all the way into Tennessee and Virginia and southward to the Black Mountains. The park is also a great place to try cross country skiing, as its high altitude allows snow to linger even when it is melted from the valleys.
As 2017 begins, let’s all remember how important these parks are to us and millions of other Americans who come to enjoy them each year. If you can, use this year to give back to them, whether it’s through the Smokies’ Volunteers in the Parks Program or by donating your time with the Cumberland Trails Conference to construct new portions of the Cumberland Trail. You can contribute to organizations such as The Conservation Fund, which purchase threatened land near existing parks or help to create new protected areas. On a local level, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy works in the Southern Appalachians to save endangered areas by providing responsible stewardship and engaging in land acquisition. One of their primary areas of focus is to protect the globally significant Highlands of Roan, home to endemic species found nowhere else on earth.
These mountains are not just our home. They are an international treasure which are in grave danger. Yes, hundreds of thousands of acres are now protected, but there is so much more we can and should do to further safeguard the forest, the wildlife, our waters, and soil. These mountains need us, and perhaps even more importantly, we need these mountains.