Conservation Technology Support Program: GIS Experiences from Prior Recipients

Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition

Working to Promote the
Sound Stewardship of Public Forest Lands,
Reform Public Land Management and
Preserve Native Biodiversity

The Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, a collaboration of national, regional, state, and local environmental organizations from Alabama to Virginia, was created in 1995 in response to the threats facing the public lands and heritage of the southern Appalachians. We believe our legacy of high mountains and forests, rivers and rural countryside is at risk. We are working to complete the protection of our natural heritage in the tradition of our grandparents who created the public parks and forests of the region. The Coalition's work is currently dedicated to improving the basis of sound conservation in the forest plans now being revised across the region; to restoring public participation in the process; and seeking new partnerships that unite us in seeking a secure future for a valued inheritance.


I. Summary of GIS Achievements since incorporation of CTSP Award: The Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition (SAFC) and Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) have used GIS resources acquired under the CTSP grant to further their conservation agenda in several key areas of our campaign. The GIS hardware and software have been used in monitoring data being developed by federal agencies in the Southern Appalachian Assessment (SAA). This data, which will be used by the Forest Service in their plan revision process throughout the Southern Appalachians was available in draft form during late 1995. Our GIS capability enabled us to review the GIS coverages being developed and make constructive comments during the later stages of coverage development. Since the final GIS coverages became available in the Spring of 1996, we have utilized them to examine specific issues addressed in the SAA that will be pertinent to national forest plan revisions. These important issues include old growth forest, black bear habitat, and regional urbanization. The ability to display, manipulate, and analyze coverages from the SAA relating to biodiversity issues has helped SAFC/SELC develop positions and input on topics including old growth, special area protection, and migratory bird habitat. To the extent that our capabilities allow it, we are also processing data (e.g. clipping to sub-regional areas, generalizing for PC format) from the SAA and from other sources to provide access for member groups to GIS data. SAFC has already worked out a procedure for processing the UNIX based coverages using a PC based GIS system. Member groups can use this data to develop alternative plans for input into forest plan revisions, for interim protection of key areas of biological diversity and undeveloped character, and for development of subregional conservation plans. We are utilizing coverages from the SAA, from state heritage programs and other sources, supplemented with coverages developed by SAFC and member groups to develop sub-regional conservation plans for key areas of biological diversity and high concentrations of wild areas. SAFC is currently working with the Wilderness Society to digitize the Mountain Treasures areas in the Wilderness Society's series of books on the remaining wildlands of the Southern Appalachians. Subregional areas that are currently undergoing plan development include the Black Mountains of North Carolina, the Ocoee/Hiwassee River area of Tennessee, the Roan Mountain area of North Carolina and Tennessee, and the Unicoi Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. SAFC member groups are also developing plans for the Chattooga River Watershed and the Bankhead National Forest. Subregional plans for other areas of the Southern Appalachians, including the Mount Rogers area of Virginia and Tennessee, the Bald Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, and the Shining Rocks area of North Carolina are under consideration for conservation plan development.

Black Mountains Project: The mountain range known as the Black Mountains of North Carolina is one of the most physically attractive, biologically rich, and historically important areas of the United States. The mountain range and its watersheds are important to local and regional residents. The importance of the range has been recognized by the world at large through the designation of Mount Mitchell as an International Biosphere Reserve. The Black Mountains Project is pursuing the perpetuation and enhancement of the natural integrity of the Black Mountains and its place in the human heritage of the region. Using SAFC's GIS capabilities, the Black Mountains team is designing a conservation plan for the area. GIS coverages highlighting rare species, rare communities, and other biological resources are used to identify key cores of biological habitat. The Forest Service roadless inventory and the Wilderness Society's Mountain Treasures inventory identify areas of wildlands that are candidates for protection. These coverages have been incorporated into the plan coverages. Overlays of the biological layers with the wildlands layers have been used to highlight the biological importance of the wildland areas. Key areas of municipal, church, and private land ownership with existing conservation easements will be incorporated into the plan. Maps generated using these GIS coverages will be used in a slide show in the communities around the Blacks to (1) build awareness in communities around the Black Mountains that the area is distinctive with important biological and cultural features that should be protected; (2) build a broad base of support for protection of Mountain Treasures areas in the plan revision for the Pisgah National Forest; (3) encourage private landowners to establish conservation easements that would bring significant tax breaks to the owners and would add to the conservation values of the Black Mountains Conservation Plan.

Unicoi Mountains Plan Development: The Unicoi Mountains area spans both Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests in Tennessee and North Carolina south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As one of the least biologically fragmented areas in Forest Service ownership, the area offers a tremendous resource and opportunity for biodiversity protection in the Southern Appalachians. The Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock/Citico Creek complex of adjacent wilderness areas is supplemented by a number of roadless areas, wildlands, and old growth areas to form a high quality bioreserve core area that is biologically connected through corridors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. SAFC is using its GIS capability to generate maps of the Unicoi Mountains that highlight its unfragmented character and its high number of quality wildlands. These maps will be important in the plan revision process to influence both the Forest Service and grassroots groups to see the area as a distinct conservation area. This insight is important in planning for biodiversity issues such as old growth, bear habitat, and migratory bird habitat that should be coordinated in the whole area rather than dealt with separately as a Tennessee area and a separate North Carolina area. As SAFC brings biological data into the coverages for the Unicoi Mountains, a conservation plan will be developed.

The Proposed Ocoee National Recreation Area: The 1996 Olympics brought tens of thousands of visitors from around the world deep into the heart of one of the Southern Appalachian's most remote wild areas. The Olympic whitewater events on the Ocoee River have placed the river and Polk County, Tennessee in the spotlight as a preeminent recreation area. Future regional, national, and international whitewater events will only consolidate this position. Polk County stands on the brink of a changed future centered on recreation and tourism. The mountains of the Ocoee are high--Big Frog peak towers at over 4,000 feet--Even more striking is their steepness, ruggedness, and contrast from the busy cities of the Tennessee Valley. The Big Frog Wilderness (7,993 acres) and its contiguous Georgia counterpart, the Cohutta Wilderness (35,268 acres), form one of the largest wild areas on national forest lands in the east. The Olympic Venue is tucked in a narrow strip between the Big Frog Wilderness perimeter and Little Frog Wilderness (4,666 acres). The surrounding wildlands are not just a backdrop to the whitewater events, although they serve admirably in that role. They are also a tremendous recreation resource in their own right. Three outstanding rivers flow out of North Carolina and Georgia into the mountains of Ocoee. Each has its own unique personality and would be protected in the Ocoee National Recreation Area:

*Ocoee River National Recreation River - world class whitewater river with the Olympic kayak course, constructed at a cost of $28 million, the river attracted nearly 300,000 floaters in 1995--a gain for the local economy on fee revenue alone of nearly $500,000, far surpassing federal logging payments.

*Hiwassee National Recreation River - was once a richly settled Cherokee homeland. It is calmer than the Ocoee and is appropriate for less experienced rafters, canoeists and kayakers. Fishermen enjoy its excellent tailwater trout fishery and what may be the best smallmouth bass fishery on Forest Service lands in the southeast.

*Conasauga National Wild River - described by a well known fisheries biologist as "the biological treasure of the southeast" with 26 rare, threatened or unusual fish species. The northward course of this river ties together the Cohutta Wilderness and the Ocoee.

In addition to protection of the rivers, the National Recreation Area proposal would make the following designations:

*Big Frog perimeter designated wilderness

*Little Frog perimeter designated wilderness

*Gee Creek perimeter designated part wilderness and part scenic area

*Chilhowee Scenic Area expanded to perimeter roads and private property boundary.

*Coker Creek Scenic Area expanded.

*Smith Mountain and the Buck Bald Areas would be designated as old growth biodiversity corridors for wildlife. Cherokee National Forest lands in Polk County are appreciated and valued by local residents --- and increasingly by regional, national and international tourists. The area has great potential as a recreation area of the highest quality. However, this type of recreation area requires planning and dedicated advocates. It requires protection of its scenic values. It requires protection of its important areas. Local groups are working to build the campaign for its designation as a National Scenic Area.

SAFC GIS GOALS: SAFC's GIS capability will be used during the U.S. Forest Service plan revision process to protect roadless areas and key biodiversity habitat. We will work with grassroots groups to provide data from the SAA and other sources to buttress their efforts to provide quality input to the plan revision process and to influence the new plans to provide for biological diversity on national forest lands. We will also work with grassroots groups to put biodiversity issues in a regional context, emphasizing the important role of public lands to provide late succession habitat. Besides utilizing data from the SAA and other sources, we plan to develop GIS layers specifically relating to biological diversity and conduct regionally oriented gap analysis on selected species. We plan to continue and expand our efforts to develop sub-regional conservation plans throughout the region, taking advantage of member and related groups that are currently developing plans or intend to develop plans to supplement conservation plans that SAFC itself is developing. These sub-regional conservation plans would be the basic building blocks representing core bioreserve areas in the region. We plan to integrate sub-regional conservation plans developed by SAFC, affiliated groups, and cooperating groups (e.g. land conservancy and land trust groups), into an overall Southern Appalachian conservation plan which would consist of a system of connected bioreserves for preservation and recovery of biological diversity in the region. SAFC is involved with the Nature Conservancy's Blue Ridge Project in a cooperative venture to combine TNC's rich biological inventories with SAFC's approach to protection of area sensitive species. The result would be a long range plan to assure biodiversity viability and recovery in the Southern Appalachians concentrating on national forest and other public lands. SAFC's GIS capability will play a crucial role in integrating a large number of sub-regional conservation plans into a coherent regional plan. We plan to work with our member groups and other conservation groups to build grassroots support to implement the long-range plan for biodiversity protection and recovery in the region. Maps and posters generated using our GIS capabilities will be important in persuasively presenting materials that elevate awareness of the Southern Appalachian Conservation plan. This could motivate people to get involved in plan revision efforts and efforts to implement sub-regional conservation plans as a part of the regional conservation plan.

Map of SAFC campaign area

Hugh Irwin (note change in email address)

Ecologist planner Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition SAFC Web site:

ESRI Conservation Program Home

ECP E-Mail:

Text and graphics: Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition
January 2, 1997

Design and Layout: Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc.
January 2, 1997