Public lands offer us respite and recreation, and provide refuge for the natural world. Between Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest to the north and Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest to the south, Central and Southern Appalachia is home to 11 national forests, all with stunning scenery, wilderness areas, waterways and waterfalls, camping options, a variety of trails and their own unique features.
The National Forest Foundation, a nonprofit that supports these public lands, estimates that visitor spending contributes $13.5 billion to the economy annually. These forests are also the site of scientific research on subjects such as climate change and invasive species. Yet they are simultaneously home to significant logging projects and often mineral extraction, which can include mining, stone removal or drilling for oil and gas. Some forests are also scarred by long-abandoned mines or oil wells.
While national parks are focused on conservation, recreation and education, national forests have a much broader charter. The U.S. Forest Service’s mission is to “sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” Determining the needs of recreational visitors, hunters, anglers, various industries and at-risk species and ecosystems is a challenging task. Impassioned forest-lovers may disagree about how well the agency is doing, especially given its complex charter and budget constraints. But because national forests belong to all of us, we all have an opportunity to shape their direction — both through the national forest planning process and through the ballot box.