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Influencing the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains

Working with U.S. Forest Service has potential for huge gains

Story Highlights
  • About a third of the Southern Blue Ridge is owned by the U.S. Forest Service - that includes 1 million acres in NC and 3.2 million acres in a total of five states.
  • TNC is hoping to use a scientific analysis study as the basis to steer good management practices for the Forest Service.

The Nature Conservancy began its North Carolina work in 1960 when it purchased Standing Indian Mountain in Clay County, which is now part of the Nantahala National Forest. A third of the Southern Blue Ridge is owned by the United States Forest Service. Influencing the Forest Service in how that it manages the 3.2 million acres it owns across the five southern states that comprise the Southern Blue Ridge is crucial to the future of the area.

That’s why working with the Forest Service is an important part of the Conservancy’s new plan for the Southern Blue Ridge. “One million of those Forest Service acres are in North Carolina,” explains Megan Sutton, who directs the Conservancy’s work in North Carolina’s mountains. “We have an opportunity to affect and influence how those lands are managed and restored by participating in a collaborative approach.”

Sutton and her counterparts from Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia just completed the Southern Blue Ridge plan. It is reflective of the Conservancy’s new approach to conservation, which ignores artificial boundaries such as state lines and instead works to influence conservation across an entire region. Informing and influencing the Forest Service as it revises its management plans – a process now underway for the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests in North Carolina – is key to Conservancy success in the Southern Blue Ridge.

Putting the Forest Matrix Analysis into Action

Sutton says the Conservancy has “tons” of data that it will provide the Forest Service as it revises its management plans. An important part of that data is a forest matrix block analysis, which looked at what lands were already protected and determined where additional protection could amplify existing conservation lands. This insures that, going forward, large swaths of forest are preserved, benefiting the plants and animals that live there as well as people who depend on them for clean water and air.

“When we conducted ecoregional planning in the late 90s, the focus of our planning was on rare and endemic species. We weren’t thinking about landscape level conservation,” Sutton explains. “The forest matrix block analysis identifies large blocks of forest or habitats where less rare species need forest to survive. Without this data, our ability to inform the Forest Service’s plan revision process would be severely limited. It would be focused on rare plants and species and natural communities, but not at a meaningful scale. The forest matrix block analysis allows TNC and all of our partners to steer land acquisitions based on good science.”

The Nature Conservancy has traditionally been known for land acquisition, and while acquisition will remain a part of its work, influencing land management and restoration will play an increased role. Preserving rare plants and species is important work, but it doesn’t get conservation to the scale where it can be meaningful across the 9.2 million acres that comprise the Southern Blue Ridge.

Working Across State Lines

Katherine Medlock, who leads the Tennessee Chapter of The Nature Conservancy’s Southern Blue Ridge, says the future of the region isn’t tethered to one state. “We are working across state lines in the Southern Blue Ridge. That wasn’t happening two years ago,” she says. “We weren’t acting collectively. We were not thinking about the whole region. Today we are thinking at that scale together. Good things will come out of that.”

Adam Warwick, who was recently hired as mountain steward in the Conservancy’s Asheville Office, says the Conservancy’s longtime supporters, who helped to preserve places such as Standing Indian Mountain that are now in Forest Service ownership, should be reassured by the Conservancy’s work to influence and inform the Forest Service. “People can take comfort in knowing that we are speaking on behalf of all those donors in the way that the entire forest is managed,” he explains. “Many people may not have time to go through a thick plan, but we do. We can speak for them.”

Bringing Fire Back to the Mountains

Warwick’s hiring represents the second approach the Conservancy is taking to conservation in the Southern Blue Ridge. He has years of experience with controlled burning. Sutton says scaling up controlled burning in the Southern Blue Ridge is crucial to its future, so it was important to bring on a steward with a strong fire background. “There are some specific places around our region where fire is not only needed, but required,” she says. “We wanted to hire someone who could speak the language of fire.”

Controlled burning is a relatively new tool in the Appalachians, but the Conservancy has used it extensively in other places such as the longleaf pine forests that range from Florida to North Carolina.  “Burning in the mountains is where longleaf burning was 30 years ago,” Warwick explains. “We’ve learned how to burn in longleaf. We’re going to learn how to do it here. But, we don’t have the cookbook for doing that yet. That’s what the Fire Learning Network is about.”

The Southern Blue Ridge Fire Learning Network (FLN) was created six years ago to advance the use of fire in the mountains. Sutton has led the FLN’s data collection work. “TNC doesn’t have a mountain burn crew, we don’t have fire equipment and until recently we didn’t have fire expertise, so data collection seemed the most appropriate place to engage,” she says. “This is a young science. We need data to better be able to hone and refine where we put fire on the ground.”

Tennessee’s Medlock says that the FLN was also crucial to the creation of the Southern Blue Ridge Plan. “We need to give credit to the FLN,” she explains. “It was at an FLN meeting that this whole thing started – we had the idea to create a management plan for the entire Southern Blue Ridge.”

Sutton says the FLN is a good model for the kind of collaborative approach that will be needed across the entire Southern Blue Ridge.  It is clear that no one group – government or nonprofit – can make conservation happen at a meaningful scale across the region by itself. “It is important for us to manage our own land and to help other land managers do their work. We can’t talk about how someone else should manage their land if we aren’t managing our own land well.” 

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