By Drew Ball
N.C. Chapter Executive Committee
Western N.C. Group
As I hike a trail just below one of the tallest ridgelines on the east coast, between the ancient birch and mountain ash trees, I catch glimpses of the 6,000-foot Craggy Pinnacle ahead in the distance. This mountain range is the Great Craggy Mountains and I’m hiking in an area known by some locals as Big Ivy.
Less than 30 minutes from my Asheville home, the forest that surrounds me is one of the oldest and most biologically diverse in the country, providing shelter for dozens of rare and endangered species. It’s much more scenic than the hiking I’ll do the following week while volunteering for the Sierra Club’s Wildlands Hike-The-Hill event in Washington, D.C.
Days later, walking through the halls of Congress with briefing packets in hand, my mission is to meet with members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation to highlight the need to permanently protect 18,000 acres of the Great Craggy Mountains as the Craggy National Scenic Area.
National Scenic Areas are recognized for their outstanding natural beauty and are some of the most unique federally managed lands in the country. Georgia has one National Scenic Area, while Virginia has three and may get another as part of next year’s Federal Farm Bill.
North Carolina currently has none.
National Scenic Area designations provide more flexibility than many other designations and can be tailored to meet the unique needs of a specific area, such as Craggy. The area is one of the most popular and most photographed areas along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Within its rugged terrain, you’ll find some of the best downhill mountain biking in the East, numerous rock faces popular with climbers, and vast acreage that has attracted hunters and anglers for hundreds of years. Former logging roads allow hikers to access attractions like the 70-foot Douglas Falls, one of the area's many breathtaking cascades.
Because of these various demands and uses within Big Ivy, a National Scenic Area makes sense to protect old-growth forests, pristine watersheds, trout streams, world-class trails, and stunning panoramic vistas. In the current proposal, over half of Craggy would be managed in the same way as wilderness, the highest protection possible.
A grassroots effort to protect Craggy has been active for over 30 years, and it has now grown into a national coalition that includes thousands of supporters, more than 120 organizations and businesses, and local governments including the Asheville City Council and Buncombe County Commission, both of which voted unanimously in support.
Studies show that a designation would boost revenue for local businesses, and help safeguard drinking water for Weaverville and Mars Hill. The designation would unlock federal resources that could support responsible management of this magnificent and unique area as it continues to grow in popularity.
To make this protection happen, the support and leadership of freshman Western North Carolina U.S. Rep. Chuck Edwards will be critical. I visited his office the same week that our local coalition delivered over 25,000 signatures in support of the Craggy National Scenic Area. He also visited the area with local advocates earlier this summer.
Thankfully, Edwards has experience with securing protections for public lands. While he was in our state Senate, Edwards successfully won bipartisan support to add Pisgah View State Park to North Carolina's state parks system; it will soon become the first state park in Buncombe County, near Asheville. He's pledged to file a bill in Congress to create the Craggy National Scenic Area; his staff recently said they're still researching the plan. Our coalition hopes that legislation will be introduced this year and that its text will be included as part of next year’s Farm Bill package - a common vehicle for federal land designations like this. Our senior senator, Thom Tillis, will also need to be part of the effort to ensure its success in the Senate, and his staff has seemed receptive during meetings with Craggy supporters.
In Virginia, Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner have worked with other members of their state's congressional delegation to introduce the Shenandoah Mountain Act, a bill to establish a 92,562-acre Shenandoah Mountain National Scenic Area.
For anyone still counting, that would be Virginia’s fourth National Scenic Area. Will Congressman Edwards and our U.S. senators be able to work together to help deliver North Carolina’s first?
If they succeed, it will mean that future generations of North Carolinians who want to hike, fish, hunt and bike in the Great Craggy Mountains will still see and love the majestic, unspoiled land that Sierrans like you and me enjoy today.