The Bankhead’s Magical Canyons

West Beech canyonDescending into one of the canyons of the Bankhead National Forest is like passing through a portal into another world.  Hemmed in by massive sandstone bluffs, a canopy of towering hemlocks filters sunlight through blue-green foliage, creating a peaceful ambiance beyond the simply visual.  Aged and imposing sentinels of old-growth tuliptree, beech, and white oak, rooted among the boulders on the canyon floor, stretch high above the sandstone rims in their search for light.  Along the bluffs, dense thickets of mountain laurel wall out intruders.  Water music fills the air, as a crystal clear stream vaults from a smooth sandstone chute over a seventy foot high waterfall and dances happily through roots and rocks.  A dozen different kinds of ferns fill this shadowed world with myriad textures and hues of green.  The jungle-like cry of a pileated woodpecker pierces the cool, moist and oxygen-rich air.

This magical world is tucked away throughout the Bankhead, leading many to call this extension of the Cumberland Plateau physiographic region the undiscovered jewel of Alabama’s National Forests, or the land of a thousand waterfalls.  While many hunters, hikers and local residents may be familiar with these canyons, the casual visitor to the Bankhead rarely experiences these unique ecosystems.  The only marked and maintained trails leading into the canyons are in the 25,000 acre Sipsey Wilderness, a small part of the 181,000 acres of the Bankhead National Forest in the northwest corner of Alabama.

Braziel Creek waterfall

The U.S. Forest Service has recognized the sandstone canyons of the Bankhead as deserving of special protection.  The 2004 Revised Land and Resource Management Plan (RLRMP) included a special management prescription, the canyon corridor prescription, to protect these rare communities with their unique collection of flora and fauna.  However, only about 100 miles of streams were actually allocated in the RLRMP, identified by an “ID team” using topographical maps, aerial photographs and computer modeling, but without any actual field work.   According to the language in the prescription, “canyon corridors will be added to the 4.L prescription and mapped as found.  Site-specific field investigation will determine the extent of the canyon corridor to ensure that the canyon character and function are protected.”  Unfortunately, budget and manpower constraints have seriously limited the Forest Service’s ability to perform this field investigation, except in ongoing project areas.  It is commonly accepted that the only way to accurately and comprehensively inventory and map the canyon corridors is through an exhaustive on-the-ground survey.

This is where Wild South’s Canyon Survey Program entered the scene, thanks to funding from the National Forest Foundation, the Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation, the Fund for Wild Nature and Wild South donors.  Former Bankhead District Ranger Glen Gaines welcomed Wild South’s willingness to help inventory and map the canyons.  Wild South staffer Mark Kolinski joined the organization in March, 2006 to accelerate the pace of the program, which was initiated in 2004 by then Executive Director Lamar Marshall, assisted by volunteers and Duke University Stanback interns.

Locating and mapping all the canyons in the Bankhead has been an ambitious undertaking, requiring thousands of hours, both in the field and at the computer.  The program has proceeded one 6th level watershed at a time.  6th level watersheds are now the basic unit of management in the Bankhead, and they range from about 1,200 to 7,000 acres in size.  There are approximately 50 of these watersheds in the Bankhead that contain a significant acreage of National Forest land, although some smaller watersheds are grouped with another into a single unit for management purposes.

Rockhouse Creek waterfall

The field work of the survey has now been completed in all 38 watershed units where topographical detail indicated even a remote chance of the existence of canyon conditions.  Every significant topographical feature, every bluff and large continuous rock outcrop in these 38 watersheds, was mapped with a hand-held GPS receiver.  To demonstrate the scope of this undertaking, it covered around 123,000 acres and included walking approximately 750 miles of streams and drainages, often following bluff lines through very steep and rugged terrain.  Volunteers were critical to the field work and logged hundreds of hours.  Seven different college interns also participated in the project over the years.

Canyons that are present within certain recreational prescriptions, such as the Sipsey Wilderness and the Sipsey Wild and Scenic River Corridor, were not mapped, since these prescriptions already protect these areas and would override the canyon Rx.  The standards for protection afforded by the canyon corridor prescription are very similar to these recreational prescriptions, where the desired future condition is late-successional, climax forest, unsuitable for timber production.  Only low impact recreational activities are allowed, such as hiking, backpacking, dispersed camping, hunting and fishing.  Road density is low, wildlife openings are not allowed, and the “scenic integrity objective is high”, which is to say the area will be managed to maintain a naturally appearing landscape character.

Rush Cr. Canyon Survey

Through our Canyon Survey Program, Wild South and the Forest Service are working together to protect these ecologically unique, biologically diverse, and magically fascinating areas for future generations to experience and enjoy.

Icy canyon