Our collective watershed: notes on Overflow
Just as humans need to live in connection, so does the natural world. The Chattooga River is a vital artery, with a watershed of countless capillaries, that does not know the names of the national forests or the three states it pulses through. Though it exists unbounded and inextricable from the life all around it, those state lines arbitrarily separate it into the jurisdiction of multiple national forests.
In February 2020, the lengthy draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the new Nantahala- Pisgah National Forest Plan was released for public commenting. Before the end of this year, we expect the Forest Service will release their finalized forest plan. This will determine those potential Wilderness areas, Wild and Scenic river eligibility, and the fate of other irreplaceable natural resources on our public lands for the next twenty years, or more. Climate change is not forgiving— failing to protect these crucial wild places now will mean inevitable loss in the not so distant future.
While each forest plan is unique, the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan is the first within the Chattooga River watershed to be reviewed since the establishment of the Forest Service’s “2012 Planning Rule,” which aims to respond to the increasing effects of climate change and the dwindling wild areas of the southeastern US by emphasizing the importance of biological diversity and connectivity within and between core protected areas. And yet, despite the adoption of this new planning rule, we fear that the Forest Service’s final EIS for the new Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan may fall short of this critical new standard for forest management.
Take, for example, the Overflow Creek Wilderness Study Area in the Chattooga headwaters in North Carolina, which the Forest Service says is too small to be protected under a Wilderness designation. Those 3,900 acres of wilderness are bounded to the south by the Georgia state line, and are contiguous with 2,700 acres of backcountry in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest- together making 6,600 acres full of old growth, waterfalls, wildlife, and boundless opportunities for seclusion and recreation. On a planet that is increasingly suffering under the effects of climate change, areas of uninterrupted native forests like these are absolutely vital to mitigating environmental damage, protecting biological diversity, and promoting the health and longevity of all species- including ourselves.
Way up the river corridor in North Carolina are the East and West Forks of Overflow Creek, which together form Overflow, a tributary to the West Fork of the Chattooga River in Georgia. While some sections of the East and West Forks wouldn’t qualify as Wild because of elements like intruding roads, those sections undeniably meet the standards of either Scenic or Recreational. In spite of this, neither the East nor the West Forks of Overflow received any protective designation from the Forest Service. Every stretch and bend of Overflow, whether it houses southern brook trout or solitude seeking humans, should be deemed eligible for the highest possible level of protection as described in the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, as natural extensions of the Chattooga River corridor.
It’s time our forest management plans reflect what most of us now know: how separation and isolation can so easily disrupt the intricate systems we rely on. If the Forest Service fails to recommend Overflow Creek for Wild river designation; the East and West Forks for an amalgamation of Wild, Scenic, or Recreational designations; or the Overflow Creek Wilderness Study Area for Wilderness designation, the effects will be felt not only in those acres of North Carolina, but throughout the Chattooga River watershed in South Carolina and Georgia, and the dwindling wilderness of the eastern United States.
We urge the Forest Service to recognize, protect, and preserve the ecological connectivity that underpins the health, adaptability, and continuation of these wild lands and all their components. To heal and to thrive means living in solidarity, not segregation.