Climbers Help Shape Next Two Decades of North Carolina Forest Management

The U.S. Forest Service is currently finalizing a new forest plan for all activities and designations within North Carolina’s Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests, including climbing. These public lands are home to some of the most popular climbing in the East, including Looking Glass Rock, Linville Gorge, and Whiteside, to name just a few. The forests boast more than 3,000 routes and over 75 cliffs, crags, and boulder fields that offer an enormously diverse range of climbing: bouldering, sport, trad, aid, ice, and even 1,000-foot multipitch walls.

Climbing in Pisgah-Nantahala Forests, ancestral lands of ᎠᎳᎫᏪᏘᏱ Tsalaguwetiyi (Cherokee, East) | © Bryan Miller

The Forest Service has released a draft of its new forest plan, which is now open for public comment. Once finalized, this new plan will replace the current, 23-year-old plan and set policies and management direction for the forests for the next 15–20 years. It will govern the climbing community’s ability to use and access climbing resources, place and replace fixed anchors, partner on trail maintenance and stewardship, and protect and manage peregrine falcons and sensitive cliff vegetation. In short, this is an incredibly important plan for climbers.

Access Fund and Carolina Climbers Coalition (CCC) have been working closely with Forest Service officials since 2013 to ensure that climbing areas are clearly defined and that climbers’ issues and values are strongly represented. With support from Outdoor Alliance’s Geographic Information System (GIS) Lab, we’ve inventoried and mapped climbing areas within the forest to illustrate climbing use and its connection to other forest values, such as trail systems and designated Wilderness areas. You can review Access Fund’s detailed feedback to the Forest Service over the past several years here, in the North Carolina section.

Access Fund and CCC are currently reviewing the draft forest plan, and carefully evaluating all aspects that impact climbers before submitting feedback to the Forest Service and rallying the climbing community to submit letters. Information about the plan and upcoming public meetings can be found here.

“We’re beginning our analysis of the new plan, and it’s great to see climbing broadly represented across the entire forest,” says Zachary Lesch-Huie, Access Fund’s southeast regional director. “However, we have some serious concerns about our ability to install and replace fixed anchors and do trail and stewardship work, and about an overall lack of important climbing-management guidance. We’ll need the climbing community to rally hard to get a plan that works for climbing, and we’re looking forward to working on these questions with the Forest Service in the coming weeks.”

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The seven-year planning process has brought an unprecedented level of collaboration with forest staff and other interest groups. Two critical stakeholder groups—the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership and the Stakeholder Forum—brought climbers, hunters, hikers, boaters, Wilderness advocates, timber companies, wildlife conservationists, mountain bikers, water conservationists, fishing advocates, equestrians, and environmental groups together to ensure this forest plan works for a broad set of interests.

North Carolina’s national forests are among the most visited in the country, attracting more than 4 million visitors a year. Nantahala and Pisgah national forests are a massive economic engine for western North Carolina and the Southeast region, making this plan an incredibly important one to get right.

“Climbing and other outdoor recreation within Nantahala and Pisgah national forests are helping to create more resilient local economies, as well as contributing to the health and well-being of its residents,” Lesch-Huie says.

A 2017 study by the Outdoor Alliance found climbers alone contribute $13.9 million to the local economy by visiting the Nantahala-Pisgah region. This study is part of a growing body of research that shows climbers and other outdoor recreationists are increasingly an economic force in rural communities.

Climber stewardship day at Looking Glass | © Bryan Miller

This forest plan also comes at a time of greater collaboration and partnership between the district forest office and the local climbing community. In recent years, CCC and Access Fund have worked with Forest Service officials to maintain trails, address fixed-anchor issues, and improve protections for peregrine falcons and sensitive cliff vegetation.

“We’re doing more on-the-ground work with the Forest Service than ever before,” says CCC Executive Director Mike Reardon. “This collaboration is good for our climbing areas, good for our climbing community, and for the forest. We’re optimistic that this new plan can strengthen that collaboration.”

Access Fund will be issuing an action alert in the coming weeks, asking climbers to speak up and submit public comments on this plan. If you haven’t signed up for action alerts, make sure you do so here.