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Pilot Mountain Big Pinnacle

From Marshall Ellis, Mountain Regions Biologist, North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation:

The question of access to the Big Pinnacle at Pilot Mountain gets asked quite often, both by climbers and non-climbers. The Big Pinnacle has been closed to visitor access since the late 1970s when the old staircase finally gave way and was dismantled, and over the intervening years, the division's policy has been to keep that area closed to visitor access. There are a number of reasons for that, both operationally and ecologically. Constructing and maintaining an access and then safeguarding the public once they were on top would inevitably lead to extensive railings, stairs, safety barriers, etc. that would detract significantly from the local views of the Big Pinnacle. All things equal, we've opted to keep that view as natural as possible.

From a climbing perspective, the decision was made early on to limit climbing in the park to the cliffs along the Ledge Springs Trail. As it happens, the Big Pinnacle and the Ledge Springs cliffs share a number of cliff-dwelling species and natural community types, so basically, an ecological trade was made that sacrificed the cliffside species and natural communities along the Ledge Springs cliffs in exchange for preserving those on the Big Pinnacle. We've made similar trade-offs at all of the other climbing parks as well in an attempt to accommodate recreation and resource protection.

The Big Pinnacle is the only site in the park that is specifically off-limits to the public, and consensus among the operations and natural resource management staffs is that it will remain closed. There are several specific issues that we feel compel us to protect the site. The Big Pinnacle is known to support excellent examples of two natural community types known as Low Elevation Rocky Summit, and Pine-Oak Heath. Both of these types are montane communities and are unusual for their Piedmont locations, particularly the Pine-Oak Heath, which is quite rare in the Piedmont. These communities have thin, rocky soils that do not hold up well to concentrated use, and the other examples of these communities along the Ledge Springs cliffs have been pretty thoroughly degraded from concentrated visitor use and cannot be expected to recover their previous vigor or extent.

There are also several notable rare rock outcrop species associated with the Big Pinnacle. These include Appalachian Golden Banner, which is state-listed by the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program as Significantly Rare, and which occurs at the park on the periphery of its range; and Greenland Sandwort, a cliff-dwelling species that is also state-listed as Significantly Rare and is disjunct from its primary range. Significantly Rare status is assigned to species that are believed to have fewer than 100 populations statewide, and these species are frequently substantially reduced in numbers by habitat destruction. In fact, one of the reasons that the climbing area along the Ledge Springs cliffs extends no further east than it does is because of the presence of Greenland Sandwort. The Big Pinnacle also has populations at its summit and base of a rare oak species known as Bear Oak, which is state-listed as Threatened and is known from only four locations in the state. Threatened status is assigned to any species that is likely to become endangered throughout all or a portion of its range.

The Big Pinnacle is also well-known for its use as a nesting site by Turkey Vultures, which have no conservation listing, and Common Ravens, which are designated as a Watch List species by the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program. Watch List species are considered to be rare, but are not believed to be in danger from a conservation standpoint. Nevertheless, the Big Pinnacle is pretty much the only site on the park for both of these local populations when it comes to protected nesting sites. There is also a record of Peregrine Falcons from the Big Pinnacle; there is a pair of falcons that returns annually to nearby Moore's Wall at Hanging Rock, and we are hopeful that Peregrines will eventually make it to Pilot Mountain. Moore's Wall is the most easterly-known nesting site in the state for the species, so Pilot Mountain would be a significant addition to that range extension.

There are additional management constraints as well. The Big Pinnacle is the principal ecological feature for the various areas that have been designated by the division as a State Dedicated Nature Preserve; by the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program as a Significant Natural Heritage Area; and by the US Department of the Interior as a National Natural Landmark (NNL). The undisturbed and intact nature of the Big Pinnacle, its rare species, its scenic values, and its high quality natural communities were key factors in all of those designations. These designations do not preclude public access or recreation; however, they do carry a heightened obligation by the division to adequately protect the ecological features that figured prominently in these decisions and to limit access in the interest of protecting those features.

We are particularly concerned about the National Natural Landmark designation, which is one of only 13 such designations in the state. Concern has already been raised by the Dept. of the Interior regarding climbing impacts within the NNL area, which includes the Ledge Springs cliffs. Opening the Big Pinnacle would lead to further degradation of the NNL, which could cause it to be listed as a damaged site if the NNL is judged to be threatened or damaged to such a degree that the nationally significant features for which the site was originally listed are in jeopardy. Opening an ecologically intact, high quality site such as the Big Pinnacle could be construed as neglect, which would not be viewed favorably by reviewers. Certainly, given the current level of concern and the reasons behind the original state and federal designations we see no way that we could justifiably expand climbing impacts to include the Big Pinnacle.

The bottom line is that we see this as a particularly important ecological feature that is worthy of protection, and at only four acres, it is a small price to pay to ensure the protection of one of the Piedmont's most ecologically unique sites. I can only say that having climbed in other parts of the country where the relationship between land managers and the climbing community was not good, I think that we have enjoyed an enviable relationship as we have worked to resolve our issues. So, here's hoping that the climbing community will understand our position on this and will continue to work with us on conservation issues.