Southern Appalachia in Conservation History

This is adapted from my presentation at the 10th Rooted in The Mountains Symposium, whose theme was “Giduwagi — Appalachian Historical Ecology.” Giduwagi is a Cherokee place name for their ancestral home in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

Whether we speak of environmentalism, conservation, preservation, biodiversity, wilderness, or sustainability, the concepts we use to think about our tangled relationship with the rest of nature are themselves the product of our prior experience with nature. We conceptualize and address our environmental problems with the intellectual resources inherited from our previous attempts to conceptualize and solve our environmental problems. The shifts and turns of our developing attitudes, beliefs and ideas are full of evolutionary drama. Any organism may struggle to construct a niche in a shifting environment — homosapiens differs only in that our nichespace has ineluctably intellectual dimensions. Other speakers here have given you tours through the geological, biological and social histories of Giduwagi. I have taken the intellectual history of preservation as the major terrain for my academic explorations, and I’d like to take you on a little ride through that landscape as it relates to this one.

Our southern Appalachian region has often played a significant role in the development of our environmental attitudes. And I think it is important that we treat the land as an active participant in history, for landscapes work on people as surely as the people work on the landscapes. When Europeans first became aware of the Americas and began to explore them, the timing coincided with a low point in their appreciation of wild nature. A materialistic and mechanical conception of nature was thriving, and the scientific and industrial revolutions had explicitly taken up the project of conquering nature as the proper task of humanity. Francis Bacon’s view of the subjugation and conquest of nature was particularly brutal. He promoted experimental science as a way to hound nature, penetrate her and force her to reveal her secrets (cf. The Death of Natureand other essays by Carolyn Merchant). And John Winthrop, as the Puritans departed for New England, wondered how could they “suffer a whole Continent … to lie waste without any improvement” (Nash 31). This cultural moment was extreme in both its antipathy for wild nature and in its confidence in human progress, and so perhaps the backlash of romanticism might have been predicted.

Romantic thinkers found nature’s appeal to be greatest, not in the places where it is most useful or subservient, but in those places where its power and scale dwarfs our human aspirations and capacities. The sublimity of volcanoes and glaciers were preferred to the domestic beauty of wheat fields. And two of the earliest examples in American letters of this romantic mode of engagement with wild nature are accounts experiences here in the southern Appalachians. The experience of these mountains had a role to play in undermining that narrative of conquest and subjugation.

The first account is William Byrd’s History of the Dividing Line. In 1728, Byrd undertook to survey the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina. His account is full of the delights of wilderness travel and the superiority of sleeping under the stars. When they arrive at the Appalachian Mountains, Byrd is enraptured, describing them as “ranges of blue clouds, rising one above another” and as a view both “very wild and very Agreeable,” which he was reluctant to depart (cited in Nash 51–52).

The second, and more significant work, is William Bartram’s Travels. The book recounts Bartram’s exploration of the southeast, from Florida up into western North Carolina in the 1770s. The book is the first extensive use of that favorite romantic concept, sublimity, in American writing. And it established the travel narrative of the naturalist-explorer as a major literary genre, to be followed by the likes of Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative and Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. Bartram’s writings and natural history accounts helped to shape the nature sensibilities of Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. Bartram wrote this of his experience on what was probably Wayah Bald:

I began to ascend the Jore Mountains, which I at length accomplished, and rested on the most elevated peak; from whence I beheld with rapture and astonishment, a sublimely awful scene of power and magnificence, a world of mountains piled upon mountains. (cited in Wikipedia entry)

This new found or recovered sense of wonder was amplified by other naturalists, like Audubon, by romantic poets, and by landscape painters. And it soon turned into protest at the destructive forces of westward expansion. The clearing of ancient forests was proceeding at devastating pace, and even the once innumerable bison herds were at risk of oblivion. Various visions of how to preserve wild creatures and lands began to be worked out. An attempt to balance use and preservation through management for the public good, a vision that continues to animate National Forest conservation, had its first substantial implementation and development in the forests south of Asheville.

Frederick Law Olmsted, father of landscape architecture, and designer of Central Park, was especially concerned with importance of natural scenery for our psychological well-being. (And what he knew in this regard from personal experience is now reinforced by large body of experimental evidence.) He wanted to learn how to recreate natural scenery in the places where it had been destroyed, or in urban contexts where it was most wanted. And at the Biltmore Estate, Vanderbilt gave Olmsted the chance to create a large, diverse forest from scratch, and experiment he couldn’t pass up. Tens of thousands of trees, many now towering denizens of Pisgah National Forest, were started in greenhouses under Olmsted’s direction.

Here with Olmsted, is where Gifford Pinchot had his first work as a forester, upon his return from an abbreviated forestry education in Europe. The grandson of a timber baron, his parents had named him after the landscape painter Sanford Robinson Gifford, and set their hopes on him to atone for the destructive source of their wealth. Pinchot’s drive for preservation was not as infused with the romantic wonder that drove others, like John Muir, as it was with a progressive era drive for economic justice. The problem with the clear-cutting barons of westward expansion was that they destroyed the natural resources, on which the public good depends, and did so for private gain. Pinchot did not stay long at the Biltmore, managing the private forest of a millionaire, before moving on to his career in public forestry. But as soon as the law permitted the Forest Service to acquire private land in the east, 87,000 acres of Biltmore Forest became Pisgah National Forest, following Pinchot into public service. And through the work of Carl Schenck, the Biltmore Forest School continued to promote a vision and practice of forest stewardship after Pinchot’s departure.

For better or worse — and I think the balance leans to the better — we have the greatest concentration of public lands east of the Mississippi, here in Western North Carolina. Including not only Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, but one of the crown jewels of the National Park System, in the Smoky Mountains.

And in response to the development of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a group of foresters had a heated discussion by the side of a road not far from here, about how to resist the dominance of auto-tourism and the multiplication of roads in protected areas. Together they formed The Wilderness Society, which once more transformed the nature of preservation in the US. When the Wilderness Act they envisioned was eventually passed in 1964, giving elevated protection to the remaining big roadless areas, only three of the originally included wilderness areas were in the east. And two of those were here — Shining Rock and Linville Gorge.

In the late 1980s, western North Carolina became the frontlines for a different vision of conservation, often contrasted with the wilderness approach: commons environmentalism. This is how historian Kathryn Newfont has described the resistance of the WNC Alliance to a clearcutting intensive management plan that was proposed for the Pisgah and Nantahala. The acquisition of the high country by the Forest Service, in the early 20thc., had in some ways formalized a longstanding practice of treating the mountains as open access, as a commons for the purposes of hunting, fishing and foraging. These resources — meat, mushrooms, ginseng, and the like, the social safety net of the woods — were now subject to nominal fees, but continued to be heavily relied on.

So when the Forest Service released a long term management plan that prioritized even-aged management (or clearcutting), it was threatening not only to the wilderness lovers but to a diverse set of other users. The Cut the Clearcutting! campaign resonated with the economic justice concerns of Gifford Pinchot, but applied them to a broader array of forest resources. And it mobilized local inhabitants from across the political spectrum in common cause, achieving “one of the most environmentally sensitive USFS regional management plans in the nation” (Newfont 117).

Today, as we wrestle through another round of drawn out forest planning process, and as we watch another UN Climate Change Summit produce little more than noise, it is good to remember where we are. It is good to remember that seemingly overwhelming forces and economic engines of destruction can be resisted with creativity and persistence, and that deeply entrenched ideologies are more liable to sudden change than feels possible in the moment. It is good to know that what we do here can reverberate through history.

Kathryn Newfont, “Commons Environmentalism Mobilized,” in Mountains of Injustice: Social and Environmental Justice in Appalachia, eds. Michele Morrone and Geoffrey L. Buckley, Ohio University Press, 2011.

Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 4thed..Yale University Press, 2001.

Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. Harper and Row, 1980.

David is an environmental philosopher who teaches at Western Carolina University in the southern Appalachian mountains.

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