By Terry Deal
Everyone has reasons why they love living in southern Appalachia. Easy access to wilderness and the beauty and solace of wild places tend to top the list. We are fortunate to have so many opportunities nearby to explore treasured forests and enjoy abundant and varied wildlife as well as remarkable plant species.
With such vast riches in our backyards comes the responsibility of protecting and preserving our natural heritage for future generations. Wild South—a regional environmental organization that works with community volunteers to inspire people of all ages to enjoy, value and protect the wild character of the South—takes that responsibility seriously.
Wild South, which covers a seven-state region, is recognized as a leading protector of biodiversity within our southern public lands. It incorporates advocacy, political action, educational outreach, citizen scientists, cultural awareness and wilderness protection. It also recruits and trains volunteers to preserve wilderness character.
In what can be considered a combination cultural heritage and wilderness protection project, Wild South is partnering with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Cherokee Preservation Foundation and the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina to archive thousands of records of Cherokee Indian trails in the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests. Seeking protection under the national forest designation of “cultural heritage prescriptions,” some 150 miles of Cherokee trail corridors have been mapped by Wild South and submitted to Rodney J. Snedeker, US forest archaeologist and tribal liaison.
“The Cherokee people want their ancestral landmarks, trails, sacred sites and cultural heritage preserved so that it lives on in the hearts and minds of their children,” says Lamar Marshall, Wild South’s cultural heritage director. “Identification, designation and protection of these trails will also offer a new dimension and experience for visitors.”
The Linville Gorge Wilderness, near Marion, NC, is home to another important “boots on the ground” project, which aims to preserve and restore more than 12,000 acres in the beloved gorge. Here, Wild South trains wilderness stewardship volunteers to restore trail corridors, improve neglected trails, remove non-native invasive plant species and educate visitors on how to minimize impact. These programs provide the community with the necessary tools and training to sustainably care for shared public lands in perpetuity.
The organization believes protecting endangered species is also critical to maintaining wilderness. “Our overarching program is science-based and in many cases our focus is on helping imperiled species such as the hellbender and green salamander in western North Carolina,” says Dr. J.J. Apodaca, Warren Wilson College professor and chief conservation scientist for Wild South. “We are using the best science available to develop and implement practical conservation and management programs that help the species. Wild South is the gritty, on-the-ground organization that gets things done.”
Wild South is also partnering with other conservation organizations to save the imperiled red wolf, our native wolf species that once freely roamed the southeast and the southern Appalachians. Because of state politics and wolf deaths due to gunshot, the US Fish and Wildlife Service suspended the red wolf restoration program in 2016. Given the political climate under the new administration, the red wolf will now likely face extinction in the wild.
If you are like most, you want children, young adults and grandparents of all backgrounds to be able to continue enjoying activities such as hiking, bird watching or picnicking in the wild and wonderful places our unique region offers. We need organizations like Wild South to work for the protection of our wildlife and wilderness, and ensure that our streams and air will support healthy ecosystems for future generations.
For more information, or to learn about volunteer opportunities, visit wildsouth.org.
Terry Deal is an educator who has made it her life’s work to inspire children and adults to connect with the natural world. She is currently the president of the board of directors of Wild South.