Choosing Lands to Protect

Choosing Lands to Protect

Snowbird Wilderness Study Area. Photo by Mark Schmerling

Conservation Corner: Public Support Influences Which Lands Are
Protected in Our Region

By Frances Figart

The Blue Ridge Mountains were identified as the top recommended priority area in the nation for land conservation to preserve biodiversity in a recent federal study.* The study assessed protected lands in the United States with respect to species diversity and found that, while most protected lands are in the West, the majority of vulnerable species are in the Southeast. That’s right, “our” Southeast.

We know our mountains are a critical conservation priority among all the landscapes in the entire country. But how is it determined which lands should get the highest levels of protection? And which ones actually do? In the face of population growth and climate change these questions are more important than ever. Ecologists from The Wilderness Society recently developed a method that uses four factors to assess conservation importance:

  • Ecological integrity or wildness—how large, contiguous and unmodified by human developments the land is,
  • Connectivity—how connected the parcel is to other protected lands,
  • Ecosystem representation—how many different ecosystem types are represented on the land,
  • Biodiversity—the number of range-limited and poorly protected native species the land contains.

Based on these criteria, a significant number of areas in the southern Appalachian Mountains rank at the very top nationally for their conservation value, and many of these fall within Western North Carolina’s Nantahala and Pisgah national forests.
“Scientists are increasingly recognizing that our existing protected areas and conservation reserves may not be adequate to sustain the wildlife and other species within them, especially in a changing climate,” says Dr. Travis Belote, a research ecologist with The Wilderness Society who is co-authoring a study that uses the four factors. “Our research considers their calls for additional conservation reserves and identifies the wild, connected and underrepresented places in the country.”

Even though many important lands are part of national forests, they may still be vulnerable to degradation unless they become designated as ‘wilderness’ or ‘backcountry,’ ensuring higher levels of conservation protection. While these and other studies recognize areas in our mountains as conservation priorities, the reality of which lands actually gain high levels of protection often has a lot to do with community support.

How to Decide Which Lands to Protect

Harper Creek Wilderness Study Area. Photo by Jill Gottesman

One recent example is the Craggy/Big Ivy area in Buncombe County. The people who live near this area and recognize its value have become advocates for it, and their voices are key to its eventual protection. This past September, members of the well-established Friends of Big Ivy group rallied support by attending the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting. Thanks to their advocacy, a resolution was approved supporting wilderness designation for 7,900 acres of the Craggy/Big Ivy area.

“The incredible support from Friends of Big Ivy for protecting this area permanently is testimony to the power of place in our daily lives and to the value of public lands among local communities here in Western North Carolina,” says Brent Martin, Southern Appalachian regional director for The Wilderness Society. “There are plenty of people and communities that feel this way about particular places here, and now is the time for them to rally for their protection and designation.”

Where are the other Big Ivys in our region? What about the Black Mountains in Yancey County, Mackey Mountain in McDowell County or Fires Creek/Tusquitee Bald in Cherokee, Macon and Clay counties? These areas, too, contain vulnerable native species and ecosystems that could be lost if we do not ensure their preservation. They need advocates, friends who recognize the value they hold for all of us and will speak up for their protection.

Right now, Forest Service staff is assessing these places and evaluating them for potential recommendation for wilderness designation in the Nantahala and Pisgah forest plan revision, currently underway. It’s important that they hear the voices of those who wish to preserve these lands—lands that studies show are irreplaceable for their ecological integrity, wildness and biodiversity.

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*Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) report, ‘US protected lands mismatch biodiversity priorities.’

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