Forest Recreation and Development

Tue, 11/08/2011 - 10:04 -- cadoughe

Roadless areas are a limited resource in the Southern Appalachians and in the eastern U.S. These areas, almost exclusively in public lands, have regained or are regaining a natural appearance, meaning that any signs of prior human activity are vanishing due to natural forces.

For an area to be identified as a roadless area, it must include no more than one-half mile of improved road for each 1,000 acres. Roadless areas contain the last remaining large tracts of the least disturbed land in the region, other than wilderness. Public land agencies are the primary owners of these areas.

Although the region as a whole is well roaded, there is an exceptionally high number of roadless areas. The largest roadless area in the region and the Southern Appalachian Mountains is in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an area containing some 464,544 acres. In addition to areas in the Great Smoky National Park, the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests contain around 151,000 roadless acres, or 14.6 percent of total national forest acres.

Roadless Areas

WNC roads and roadless areas

Although the region as a whole is well roaded, there is an exceptionally high number of roadless areas. The largest roadless area in the region and the Southern Appalachian Mountains is in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an area containing some 464,544 acres. In addition to areas in the Great Smoky National Park, the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests contain around 151,000 roadless acres, or 14.6 percent of total national forest acres.

Forest fragmentation refers to the breaking up of uninterrupted forested areas into smaller zones, and is viewed as harmful to the habitat of many birds, mammals, and plants, as well as entire ecosystems. Animals with large range and breeding requirements are most affected. Open roads can also diminish use for primitive recreation experiences as well as bird watching, fishing, hiking, and hunting.

Roads also lead to increased erosion, and air and water pollution. When new road construction occurs in roadless areas, the area is eliminated from the possibility of future wilderness designation. After construction, roads rarely return to their original state and, therefore, permanently transform the landscape.

New home builders commonly look for natural appearing viewsheds and the desire to share in the immediate benefits of living next to protected land. In Western North Carolina, 43 percent of land is publically owned or located within 0.5 miles of public lands. An additional 9 percent is within 0.5 to 1 mile of public land. Private land in the vicinity of public land carries a higher demand for development and may stimulate road construction.

The 'Road to Nowhere'

In the 1960’s, the National Park Service built only seven miles of a replacement road for Swain County along the north shore of Fontana Lake near Bryson City, NC. They abandoned the project due in part to severe erosion and acidic runoff that harmed fisheries in several streams. The road became known as the 'Road to Nowhere'.

In a settlement concluded in February of 2009, the National Park Service agreed to pay Swain County $52 million, which covers the present-day cost of rebuilding the country road that was flooded in the 1940’s to create Fontana Lake. The settlement will bring resources to Swain County to create jobs, invest in schools, and improve the county’s infrastructure, and, the area will stay in a natural state for future generations.

Development and Conservation

Areas changing from natural to developed by 2030

Western North Carolinians are currently negotiating a balance between the development and conservation of our unique natural resources. If development increases, there will be less open space and more fragmented natural environments. The region needs more and better paying jobs and faces significant challenges in meeting the costs of growth. An important expanding growth sector is tourism and outdoor recreation.

Scenarios which portray conservation versus development are not always the best option. The challenge to our mountain communities is to manage growth and foster mixed-use development while balancing green (natural) and gray (concrete or manmade) infrastructure.

Communities around the country are using resourceful policies to develop in ways that conserve natural lands and critical environmental areas, protect natural resources, restore previously developed land and create jobs in the process. In Western North Carolina, the Linking Lands Project of the Land Of Sky Regional Council is an example of a project that is using a sustainable development planning approach to identify a possible green infrastructure in Buncombe, Henderson, Transylvania, and Madison Counties. The plan identifies a physical network of the region’s most valuable elements including recreation lands, wildlife habitat, forest lands, water resources, farmlands, and cultural resources. This plan can serve as a planning resource for local governments, land trusts, landowners, and developers.

Smart growth is a related component of sustainable development that helps to reduce urban sprawl. The features that distinguish smart growth in a community vary, but, in general, smart growth development is town-centered, public transit and pedestrian oriented, and has a greater mix of housing, commercial and retail uses than traditional sprawl development. It also preserves open space and critical environmental areas and takes advantage of compact building designs that will minimize impervious surfaces.