Wild Jefferson

Jefferson National Forest contains 58,000 acres of wilderness areas. The Draft Management Plan recommends another 28,000 acres for wilderness study.

The Radford Coalition is an ad-hoc organization made up of representatives from the Virginia Wilderness Committee, Appalachian Trail Club, Southern Environmental Law Center, Sierra Club, Virginia Forest Watch, Wild Law, Pacific Rivers Council, Mountain Heritage Alliance and Citizens Task Force.

The 25 switchbacks up Stone Mountain from Cave Springs National Recreation Area, Lee County, Virg., make for a stunning, if exhausting, climb. Steeply pitched at first, they gradually lengthen to follow hillside contours, dipping in-and-out of small drainages where green ferns, nurtured by runoff, contrast sharply with dry forest floor a few feet away. Three miles up, the trail passes beneath an eight-foot rock overhang and then disappears in a sea of nettles, winding its way toward the ridge crest.

For most, natural beauty alone would recommend Stone Mountain as an ideal wilderness. Other reasons do exist. It is suitable bear habitat, harbors two rare salamanders and contains possible old growth forest. On a practical level, natural gas beneath the ground is owned by the government, not private industry.

Both the Forest Service, in its draft forest management plan for the Jefferson National Forest, and the Radford Coalition, an ad-hoc organization of environmental groups pushing for more wilderness in Virginia, propose Cave Spring as a future federal Wilderness Area.

But if they agree on this, their reasons differ. For one, it’s a prescription. For the other, it’s a passion.

In the technical jargon of the Forest Service, a “prescription” is a way to manage land. Wilderness is the most protective, and the Forest Service deems Cave Springs suitable largely because it would, if approved by Congress, promote ecological diversity among all of the Jefferson’s wilderness areas. Currently, there are no wilderness areas in the Clinch Ranger District, a unit of the Jefferson NF that is situated in the Cumberland Plateau physiographic region of Virginia, an area distinct from the Blue Ridge, and Valley and Ridge regions.

“If you consider wilderness to be a control area, to test your management theories elsewhere against what would naturally be occurring, you’d like that control to be representative of all your ecological types,” said Nancy Ross, planning team leader for the Jefferson NF draft forest plan. “This (the Clinch RD) was an area where we didn’t have that ecological representation.”

For Virginia’s Wilderness community, protecting Cave Springs and numerous other sites is important because wilderness represents the highest form of land protection possible. The Wilderness Act in 1964 embodied an important ideal, that places of outstanding natural beauty or significance should be protected from man’s heavy hand. Resource extraction, such as logging and mining, are not allowed in wilderness areas. Nor are mechanized tools or transport. In this way, wilderness areas serve as natural heritage sites, where future generations can see and study land that is “untrammeled by man.”

Cave Springs is one piece in a large, public campaign to create more wilderness in Virginia. Driven by the Radford Coalition, wilderness advocates have proposed designating 65,000 acres (plus 24,000 acres of national scenic areas) of Forest Service land as wilderness in the Jefferson NF. Their strategy is dual-tracked. On one hand, they lobby the Forest Service to include more wilderness study areas to the draft forest plan. At the same time, it operates in grassroots fashion, county-to-county, gaining support of supervisors, hunters and other forest users, for a bill that could be submitted to Congress possibly this summer.

Low-key, grassroots organizing proved in Craig County, where Mark Miller, a Lexington resident who works for Virginia Forest Watch and the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, approached hunters and adjacent landowners with wilderness proposals. Next he met with county supervisors and touted the economic benefits of wilderness. In April, the Board of Supervisors unanimously endorsed a new wilderness area on Brush Mountain, and addition to Shawvers Run and Mountain Lake wilderness areas.

For Miller, the advantages of a low-key approach were clear and simple.

“We were able to get our message out adequately and appropriately before any opponents picked it up,” he said. “By the time the opposition got geared up and rolling, our message was already out there and clear. And a lot of the myths they used to try and defeat wilderness didn’t work anymore.”

Smyth County supervisors also approved wilderness in their county in April, by a 4-2 vote. In Wythe County, opponents were able to convince supervisors to endorse the Forest Service draft plan, a defeat for wilderness advocates.

Endorsements of local governments are necessary if the region’s Congressman, Rick Boucher, is to introduce a new Virginia Wilderness Act to Congress. Legislators rarely support any initiative that isn’t supported by the people who live, work and play in those affected areas, explained Jackie Dobrinska, spokesperson for the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, an Ashville, NC-based land preservation group that is aiding the Virginia effort.

The efforts county-to-county is necessary because the Jefferson NF’s forest management plan, released last January after a decade of preparation, contains for far fewer wilderness areas than proposed by the Radford Coalition.

The draft plan recommends three new stand-alone wilderness study areas, as well as additions that would increase the size of seven existing wilderness areas.

New stand-alones include nearly 13,000 acres on Garden Mountain and nearby Hunting Camp/Little Wolf Creek area in Bland County, in the vicinity of Burke’s Garden. The third is the 3,300-acre Cave Springs in Lee County.

Additions to existing wilderness areas, as recommended by the forest plan, include: Shawvers Run, Mountain Lake, Peters Mountain, Kimberling Creek, Little Wilson Creek, Lewis Fork and James River Face.

In total, the draft forest plan recommends 28,000 acres of wilderness study areas. Were they to be approved by Congress someday, they would join the 58,000 acres currently dedicated to wilderness in the forest, making 12 percent of Jefferson National Forest wilderness, said Ross, the planning team leader for the Jefferson forest plan.

“There is no answer to how much is enough, but if you look at the nationwide average, 12 percent is right there in the average,” Ross said.

She said the Forest Service tried wherever possible to include additions to existing wilderness.

“Based on what we know about the size of wilderness areas in the East, we did make a conscious decision to try and recommend every wilderness addition we could that didn’t have overwhelming conflict,” she said. “You will see a large number of wilderness additions.”

If Virginia’s wilderness community is looking for encouragement in their efforts, they need look back only three years ago. Then, a group of local residents in Nelson County, Virg., successfully campaigned to add The Priest and Three Ridges to the Forest Service’s wilderness roster. In doing so, organizers effectively broke a 13-year gridlock that had bogged down past efforts. Their success provided momentum for this new, ongoing campaign in the Jefferson.

“I think the (Jefferson activity) really is a good model,” said Hugh Irwin, a cconservation planner with the SAFC. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding about wilderness areas that folks opposed have spread in local areas. It really takes someone working close to the ground to bring some of the positive implications of wilderness to local communities.”

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