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The Planet

Spotlight on the Southern Appalachian Highlands

by Amy Wilson

Timing, they say, is everything. When the Sierra Club launched its Critical Ecoregions program in 1992, the timing couldn't have been better for activists in the Southern Appalachian Highlands. Volunteers in Club chapters and groups throughout 10 states had been working for decades to protect their corners of the Appalachians' southern spine, which stretches from Pennsylvania's Allegheny Mountains to Alabama's Bankhead National Forest. With the ecoregion program -- which casts aside political boundaries in favor of the natural borders that divide, say, a mountain ecosystem from a coastal wetlands ecosystem -- those disparate efforts were finally linked.

The Southern Appalachian Highlands Ecoregion -- unlike the Northern Appalachians in New England -- escaped glacial scouring during the Pleistocene epoch 10,000 years ago. As a result, it supports a treasure trove of biological diversity dating back 50 million years. Thousands of plant species and wildlife ranging from rare salamanders to neotropical migrating birds to black bears inhabit the region.

Yet a mistaken idea persists that this place, now plagued by air pollution, clearcutting and increasing development, lost its wild core long ago.

"Until fairly recently," admitted Hugh Irwin, a longtime Club volunteer and forest ecologist who has lived for two decades in Knoxville, Tenn., "I bought into the myth that this forest had been totally clearcut by colonists in the last two centuries. It's just not true. When devastating cutting went on at the turn of the century, industrial loggers looked for huge, easily accessible trees. The inaccessible areas they ignored filled a vital purpose as refuges for biodiversity."

Irwin's realization sparked a dream. He imagined linking those vestiges of primordial forest together, to form "bioreserves" of wilderness for animals and plants to migrate freely over the mountaintops again.

In a special 1992 report for the Wildlands Project (the brainchild of Sierra Club Director Dave Foreman, the project aims to establish a connected system of wilderness reserves throughout North America), Irwin set forth a proposal to do just that. At the same time, he helped draw up a plan for the Sierra Club's Southern Appalachian Highlands Ecoregion. The plan garnered strong support from the trustees of The Sierra Club Foundation, whose funding has made the ecoregion program possible.

In the three years since the program was launched, Sierra Club activists have found common ground with others who have a stake in the future of these mountains, from the Blue Clan of the Echota Cherokee to the U.S. Forest Service to local utility companies. These far-reaching alliances, they say, hold the key to the long-term survival of the region.

Protecting the Forests

The Sierra Club's Southern Appalachian Ecoregion task force has, for example, tackled the enormous problem of clearcutting native forest and replacing it with pine "tree farms" by joining with other grassroots organizations in the Southern Appalachian Forestry Coalition. The Coalition -- which includes the Wilderness Society and the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, among several other organizations -- recently launched a campaign to reform U.S. Forest Service management practices in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Some of the Coalition's grassroots members, such as Cherokee Forest Voices and the Bankhead Monitor, Inc., exist specifically to watch over and influence the Forest Service's project plans, timber sales and compliance with national environmental laws.

In March of this year, the Club convened a biodiversity reserve workshop in the region that brought together more than 100 forest advocates and scientists. That workshop sparked a mapping effort by a corps of volunteers, who are now preparing maps of the Southern Appalachian Highlands biodiversity reserves under Irwin's direction [see story about a similar mapping project in Colorado, page 3].

Legendary Views have Vanished

Ironically, the trees in the Southern Appalachians may be dying faster than loggers can cut them down. A million acres of trees in Pennsylvania have perished due to acid rain. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, air pollution is so hazardous that some days park employees are not allowed out in the field. What pollutes the air taints water too, threatening native aquatic species and the region's drinking water.

Ecologist Orie Loucks, who studies what he believes are the catastrophic effects of air pollution on the forests in this region, led a Sierra Club-sponsored workshop in 1994 that initiated the Appalachian Forest Action Project. The project links the work of scientists, grassroots activists and the U.S. Forest Service employees who are researching the loss of tree species in the Southern Appalachians' native forests. Thanks to training they received at the workshop, participants are now scientifically monitoring the effects of air pollution on plots of forest throughout the region.

Ecoregion task force member Bill Grant, an atmospheric scientist, is preparing a document under Loucks' guidance that assesses which airborne pollutants have the most profound effects on the region's trees. So far, he said, the main culprits appear to be ozone, acid rain and sulfate aerosols -- all products of industrial pollution.

But most people don't make the connection between sickly-looking trees, hazy skies and air pollution, said Harvard Ayers, chair of the ecoregion task force and a professor of anthropology at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. He recalled a recent airplane ride during which his seatmate remarked on the "foggy" day. "When I explained that the 'fog' was caused by pollution, the fellow was astonished," said Ayers. "I'd estimate that 95 percent of the people in this region would react the same way."

The task force is poised to change that with a new Sierra Club publication, the Appalachian Voice. A 16-page quarterly tabloid that will feature natural history and the environment, the Voice will be available free at restaurants, hotels and Forest Service and Park Service offices.

The Voice will also be a forum for groups to exchange ideas and communicate their successes. This spring, participants at a Sierra Club-sponsored workshop pledged to use the Voice in an effort to foster communication and cooperation between local and regional grassroots groups.

Success Fosters Hope

Sierra Club leaders know their vision will require decades of work to achieve. But they are buoyed by local initiatives such as Harvard Ayers' Alternative Transportation Project for Boone and Blowing Rock, two North Carolina mountain towns. Ayers' project, borne along by strong public support, combats the fragmentation of forests that accompanies road construction. It's based on a simple solution: improving pedestrian and bicycle access instead of building more roads.

The project was lauded as a national model at the 15th Annual International Pedestrian Conference in Boulder, Colo., last year.

"Paving the world is not the answer," said Ayers. "We proved that grassroots activists and community members can get together and decide what kind of transportation future they want. "

To take action: Three critical protections for the Southern Appalachian Highlands are currently under assault in Congress. Urge your senators and representative to fight attempts to weaken or destroy the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts. Ask them to ensure that the Environmental Protection Agency has the resources to enforce these important protections.

For more information: Contact Joan Willey, regional representative in the Sierra Club's Appalachian field office at (410) 268-7411.


Correction made to the above article

"Spotlight on the Southern Appalachian Highlands" in the November 1995 issue of The Planet contained an error. The statement, "A million acres of trees in Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest have perished due to acid rain" is incorrect, since that forest contains only about 500,000 acres. More than a million acres of forest in Pennsylvania -- including the Allegheny National Forest -- are succumbing to acid rain and air pollution. In some areas, the mortality rate for sugar maples is as high as 90 percent. Equally troubling, this and other species -- including white ash, basswood and beech -- are failing to regenerate. (Jan. 1996 Planet)


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