Mountain bikers and wilderness advocates have buried the hatchet and created an alliance in the Appalachians—but will the Forest Service back their plan?
Sam Salman can’t recall the exact words that fell out of his mouth when he first saw the U.S. Forest Service map. Salman, however, remembers this: it felt like a shot to the gut.
The map outlined several potential wilderness areas in North Carolina’s Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests—one of which was just a short pedal from The Hub, Salman’s bike shop. If the USFS cordoned off those areas as wilderness, mountain bikers would lose access to a chunk of the region’s, and arguable the country’s, best mountain biking.
As an avid rider, Salman feared the loss of his favorite trails. As a businessman, Salman feared the loss of his livelihood. “It would absolutely level this store,” he says. “People come from all over to ride those trails. This shop—heck, this county—needs those people.”
If this were the typical story about mountain bikes and wilderness, there’d be no happy ending for Salman. But this isn’t that story. Not yet at least. In December, an unlikely coalition of conservationists, recreational groups, and business interests issued a memorandum of understanding advocating for more wilderness and more mountain biking access in western North Carolina’s forests. Thirty-four individuals, representing everyone from the Carolina Climbers Coalition to Trout Unlimited, have signed the MOU. The proposal calls for both adding 109,961 acres of new wilderness and creating two new National Recreation Areas, totaling 217,000 acres, on which many of Pisgah’s best known mountain bike trails are located.
The forces so often at odds with one another over America’s wilderness areas have come together and agreed to share the forests. Now, they just need to convince the USFS that they’ve created a plan worth backing.
Federal law requires that the USFS routinely re-evaluate its holdings to determine, among other things, which properties are ideal candidates for future wilderness designations. The goal is laudable: to ensure that a growing America also grows its wildest places.
A few years ago, the USFS turned its attention to the Pisgah and Nantahala forests. The first step—which birthed the map in question—was to inventory potential wilderness areas in this corner of the Appalachians. The next step, still in progress, is to evaluate those parcels.
But while the Blue Ridge Mountains are renowned for their beauty, they’re not so famous for their career opportunities. Consider Brevard, where Salman’s bike shop is based. The town of roughly 8,000 sits on Pisgah National Forest’s back porch, within easy reach of a million acres and hundreds of miles of trail. It’s an outdoor paradise, but until recently, if you wanted to earn a living, your options were largely limited to cutting down said forest, and turning those trees into paper at the Ecusta Paper Mill, or working the floor at either the local textile factory or Dupont’s film plant. In 2002, the mill and both factories went belly up, leaving one in ten people in Transylvania County jobless.
In recent years, the focus around these parts has been less on cutting down the forests and more on attracting people to play in them. Brevard and nearby Asheville have morphed into magnets for outdoor lovers. Mountain bikers, in particular, routinely flock to the region from throughout the East Coast, eager to lay tire to Pisgah’s famous singletrack trails.
That all helps explain the furor that erupted when the USFS map first rolled out, outlining 362,411 acres of Wilderness Inventory Areas. Some of Pisgah’s most iconic mountain biking trails were tied up in those spots, including Laurel Mountain, Pilot Rock, Daniel Ridge, Farlow Gap, Squirrel Gap, and Black Mountain.
In 1984, the Forest Service prohibited mountain biking in its wilderness properties. In recent years, the Forest Service ban has frequently extended the biking ban to potential wilderness additions known as Wilderness Study Areas. The relationship between some mountain bikers and members of wilderness advocates has, not surprisingly, grown increasingly rancorous.
What is surprising, given that bad blood, is the MOU.
“It’s truly a win-win situation,” says Tom Sauret, executive director of SORBA, the southeastern division of the International Mountain Bicycling Association. “This allows us to add the highest level of protection possible to the parts of Pisgah and Nantahala best suited to it, while still allowing for mountain biking in places where it’s been popular for decades. It’s proof that we can work together.”
The “we” Sauret refers to includes the Wilderness Society, which has not, historically, been a champion of mountain biking in America’s wilderness. “What we’re trying to do here is protect a very special place,” says Brent Martin, southern Appalachian regional director of the Wilderness Society. “If we’re going to do that, we have to stop looking at one another as enemies. We can oppose each other and gain nothing or we can build the middle—a bigger constituency for the environment—and gain so much more.”
Building the middle, however, is no easy task. Not everyone agrees with the MOU. Hunting groups, who generally favor the logging that creates optimal conditions for deer and grouse hunting, contend that the plan doesn’t allow for enough timber harvesting. Likewise, while the coalition includes several environmental organizations, not everyone in the conservation community is comfortable with the compromise.
“It’s been a challenge. There are always people who feel that any kind of concession equals a defeat,” explains Josh Kelly, a field biologist at MountainTrue, a North Carolina-based conservation group that helped piece the partnership together. “But we feel that this plan provides an excellent balance of environmental protection and recreation, which is vital to this area and to actually creating a solution that stands a chance.”
To date, the USFS—committed to its own deliberation process that’s slated to end in 2017—has not responded to the coalition’s MOU. In the meantime, the MOU hangs out there as tantalizing proof that competing interest groups can bury the hatchet for the greater good.
What are the odds that the USFS will adopt all, or even some, of the coalition’s MOU in its final Forest Plan? It’s anyone’s guess. Back in his Brevard bike shop, however, Sam Salman is hopeful.
“The momentum behind this alliance is unbelievable,” says Salman. “That’s really what we need, some give and take, instead of an all-or-nothing situation. We need wilderness here, absolutely, but let’s put it in places where it makes the most sense.”