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Outdoors Commissioners unclear on significance of wilderness designation

Proponents seek permanent protection of Overflow Creek area near Highlands

The proposed Zahner Wilderness Area would include portions of Blue Valley between Highlands and Scaly Mountain, NC.Almost four months have passed since Macon County commissioners first heard arguments for and against a proposed status change to the Overflow Wilderness Study Area which borders the Blue Valley Experimental Forest south of Highlands. The change would see the area renamed the Bob Zahner Wilderness Area and gain the permanent protections provided under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

All five commissioners have said that the name change is not the issue, and that they would be happy to rename the area after Zahner, a Highlands area conservationist and Blue Valley enthusiast who passed away three years ago after a lifetime of fighting to protect the natural resources of Western North Carolina. Still, the commissioners have each said separately in the last week that they are not sure whether or not they will support a Wilderness Area designation.

The issue will likely be raised again at the next meeting of the board on Tuesday, but at this point, commissioners say it is still unclear how the change in designation from Wilderness Study Area to Wilderness Area, which requires an act of Congress, would change the way the area is managed. Any resolution passed by the commissioners would be non-binding, but would be forwarded on to Congressman Heath Shuler (D) for his consideration.

The Overflow Wilderness Study Area is a 3,200 acre tract of land in Blue Valley, south of Highlands, N.C. Several conservation groups, as well as the Town of Highlands, are advocating that it be renamed and reassigned as the Bob Zahner Wilderness area.The 3,200 acre tract of land in Blue Valley was first established as a Wilderness Study Area in 1984 with the passage of North Carolina’s last wilderness bill. Overflow Creek feeds into the headwaters of the Chattooga River. The study area includes areas of old-growth, hardwood forest, and is a rich, diverse habitat for the region’s flora and fauna.

In the 1987 Land and Resource Management Plan for the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests, the U.S. Forest Service recommended the study area not be designated Wilderness, but instead be managed under a Management Area 5 designation. An MA 5 designation is meant to provide large blocks of forested backcountry in a semi-primitive state. Such areas are mostly closed to motor vehicles.

According to Candace Wyman, public affairs officer with the USFS, under then MA 5 designation, the study area is currently being managed much as a wilderness area. Should a wilderness bill be enacted in Congress, the language of the bill could stipulate special considerations in terms of how the area is to be managed, but otherwise the change in designation would leave management of the area essentially unchanged.

Currently, hunting, fishing, horseback riding and hiking are all allowed in the area. There is an access road and some campsites, which Wyman says might also remain open under a wilderness area designation, depending on the specific provisions of the bill that is passed in Congress. One stipulation that has been proposed is a 200 foot buffer zone between roads and the wilderness area that would allow for such things as the maintenance of scenic overlooks.

A change in designation would permanently protect the area in perpetuity from logging and additional roads or development. While there are currently no plans to start logging the area, proponents of the change cite a bill introduced in 1991 by then Congressman Charles Taylor which would have ended the Overflow area's Wilderness Study Area status and potential opened it to commercial interests such as timber harvesting.

Brent Martin, the Southern Appalachian Program Director for the Wilderness Society, a conservation group, has been working with Shuler's office to propose a wilderness bill which would be the first such legislation in 26 years. At a meeting of county commissioners last fall, Martin explained the danger not changing the designation.

“When Charles Taylor was Congressman here, he introduced a bill to protect the Craggy Mountains Wilderness Area,” Martin said. “The bill he wrote, if it had passed, would have released this area as a study area right back into the timber business. When you designate an area as wilderness, you no longer have to worry about that type of thing happening, because it would literally take an act of Congress.”

Some local residents, however, remain concerned that the rules of use for a federal Wilderness area might be overly restrictive. Opponents of the proposal fear that redesignating the Overflow Creek area as a wilderness would lead to the closure of several primitive camping sites, a prohibition on the use of motorized vehicles and equipment, as well as a possible ban on the use of the road that provides access.

David Jones, a Macon County resident who also addressed the board at a previous meeting, had similar worries. “A lot of people are afraid of ‘Wilderness,’” Jones said of the federal designation restrictions.

The Wilderness Protection Act stipulates that “there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act ... there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.” (Federal Wilderness Act 1964 Section 4C)

But in answer to the question of what would change if the Overflow Creek area was given a wilderness area designation, Wyman wrote, “The Overflow Wilderness Study Area is currently being managed as a wilderness area. Any potential changes in management would be directed by the specific language in a wilderness bill, should one be introduced and enacted in Congress.”

Chad Boniface, a retired Forest Service ranger, has advocated maintaining the current assignment with an MA 5 designation in the Forest and Resources Management Plan. In a recent letter to the editor, Boniface noted that any revision or change to the management plan would require public input. Boniface also questioned whether or not the Overflow Creek area meets criteria to be named a wilderness area, saying the area is small by wilderness standards and its proximity too close to developed and well-trafficked areas.

According to Martin, the board of commissioner's support will be critical in moving the designation forward to the next level. Shuler has stated that he will listen very carefully to the desires of the community's elected representatives before moving to introduce a wilderness bill to Congress. So far, the Highlands Town Board of Commissioners has passed an unanimous resolution in favor of the wilderness area designation, as have the Highlands Chamber of Commerce, the N.C. Bartram Trail Society, the Nantahala Hiking Club, the Highlands Audubon Society, the Jackson- Macon Alliance, the Western North Carolina, the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, and the Highlands Greenway Committee.

Martin says the designation would be significant for Western North Carolina where only 65,000 acres is currently protected as wilderness. “This is the highest level of protection we can bestow upon a piece of land and is a fitting way to honor local conservationist Bob Zahner,” Martin wrote in a recent letter to the editor. “We have nothing to lose with this and a tremendous amont to gain.”

But the Macon County Board of Commissioners are hoping to be reassured before making any move. “I think there are still a lot of unknowns,” said Commissioner Bob Kuppers, who says he still hasn't been shown the differences between management guidelines for a wilderness study area and a wilderness area. “All I'm asking is to put those two things side by side and lets make a reasoned, rational judgement as to what is going to change if anything, and then decide if it's significant.”

Short of that, Kuppers says he will probably have to withhold his support of the wilderness designation.

Commission Chairman Brian McClellan, who has in the past spoken in support of wilderness, said that he too hopes to clarify the questions and come to a consensus on the board before any resolution is passed, but he says so far there he has had only informal conversations with residents and other board members.

McClellan repeated again, however, that what actually happens to the Overflow Creek area will ultimately be out of the hands of the county commissioners. The county’s resolution, if and when it comes to fruition, would be a recommendation only. The decision to designate a parcel of land as a wilderness area is ultimately left up to the U.S. Congress.


Overflow Wilderness Study Area facts:

Location: Macon County, N.C., 5 miles southwest of Highlands, in the Highlands Ranger District of the Nantahala National Forest

Size: 3,200 acres

Elevation range: from 2,500 to 4,000 feet

Features: The area contains the headwaters of the west fork of Overflow Creek, one of three chief tributaries that join to make the east fork of the Chattooga River. The study area includes upland oak old-growth forest, with some cove hardwoods and white pine.

Recreational usage: The area sees heavy recreational use, including hunting, fishing, hiking, dispersed camping and backpacking.

Access: Forest Service Road 79 (open year-round) runs approximately 1.75 miles into the middle of the study area and accesses the popular Glen Falls trailhead.

Legislative History

1979: During the nationwide 1979 Roadless Area Review, the Overflow Area was recommended for “further planning,” meaning that additional study was needed before the U.S. Forest Service coud recommend whether or not Overflow should be designated as a Wilderness Area.

1984: The 1984 North Carolina Wilderness Act designated the Overflow Area as a Wilderness Study Area. This means that the Forest Service should conduct a Wilderness Study and then later make a recommendation about whether the area should be designated Wilderness.

1987: The Forest Land Management Plan for Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests recommended that Overflow not be designated Wilderness, but instead be managed under a Management Area 5 designation. This designation emphasizes semiprimitive, non-motorized recreation.

1991: A bill that would have released Overflow from Wilderness Study designation and re-opened it to logging interests was introduced by then Congressman Charles Taylor, but the bill did not make it out of committee.


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