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. Here in North Carolina, the Pisgah Nantahala represents our largest climbing asset over its 1 million acre expanse.

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 the CCC and 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.”

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 and local partners than ever before,” says CCC Executive Director Mike Reardon. “This collaboration is good for our climbing areas, good for our community, and good for the forest. We’re optimistic that this new plan can strengthen that collaboration. If you have been a climbing stewardship volunteer with the CCC in the National Forests over the past few years, please realize that you have helped climbers gain influence over this plan and can continue to do so. The plan has strong implications for partnership building but lacks cohesive fixed anchor language. Our next steps as a climbing community are to analyze the 1,000+ page plan and rally to provide succinct feedback.”  

The CCC and Access Fund have been a part of the seven-year planning process through two critical stakeholder groups—the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership and the Stakeholder Forum. These groups 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.

The CCC and 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 You can also contact Mike with specific questions: [email protected].

While planning work has gone on for 7 years, the Carolina Climbers Coalition and Access Fund have grown their on-the-ground project work with Nantahala/ Pisgah USFS. By establishing a Sponsored Volunteer Agreement with USFS in 2017, CCC volunteers have been able to steward "system" trails that lead to climbing and have built lasting relationships between climbers and regional national forest officials. The CCC has recorded 4,000 hours of stewardship work in 2019 and many of those work hours were spent mitigating erosion or fixing heavily eroded trails in the Pisgah Nantahala. The CCC now has nine trained Trail Crew Leaders and seven certified sawyers to conduct needed work on these trails and aid the under-staffed USFS on trail maintenance. Since its inception in 2017, our robust volunteer program and our Sponsored Volunteer Agreement with the USFS have benefited 6+miles of trail, refinished 2 kiosks, built 4 bog bridges, built 100+ locust or stone steps in eroded trail sections, replaced dozens of fixed anchors, removed over 100 graffiti tags, and helped protect two rare species.  Carolina Climbers Coalition volunteers have also partnered with NC Wildlife Commision and the USFS to aid in peregrine monitoring at various sites within the Pisgah/ Nantahala. The collaboration has proved beneficial for both climbers and peregrines. At North Cedar, for example, we worked with biologists to create a smaller closure boundary. Instead of the initial 72 routes closed to climbing, biologists agreed that due to the lay of the land and the eyrie site, only a select 12 routes need to be closed for the 6 month closure period. The CCC and AF’s partnership with the USFS has gained climbers a seat at the table with the National Forest, and has improved the vitality of one of the most iconic and diverse climbing regions in eastern America. 

CCC/ AF Timeline: Building Partnerships over years and gaining influence on the Pisgah Nantahala Forest Plan

  • 2012-2020: Access Fund and Carolina Climbers Coalition began providing feedback on the initial stages of the plan. We shared a seat at the Pisgah Nantahala Planning Partnership to promote climbing access in the Pisgah Nantahala National Forests and ensure climbing was a part of the Forest Plan.
  • 2017: The CCC worked with the Pisgah Ranger District to create a Trail Crew Leaders program with a Sponsored Volunteer Agreement (SVA). The SVA made it possible for climbers to steward system trails used for climbing access, and help build relationships between area climbers and national forest officials.
  • 2018: CCC adopted the Looking Glass Rock summit trail
  • 2018: CCC volunteers helped The Pisgah Conservancy with invasive removal at Cathey’s Creek
  • 2019-2020: CCC adopted all four system trails leading to the base of Looking Glass Rock. CCC were awarded a grant from Transylvania Always and the National Forest Foundation to rehabilitate these four trails. The climbing community, area nonprofits, National Forest staff, and area youth recreational programs chipped in to steward the eroded trail system leading to some of the most iconic climbing in NC.
  • 2018-2020: CCC worked with Pisgah/ Nantahala National Forest officials and NC Wildlife Commision to aid in the monitoring of peregrine nesting sites throughout NC. The collaboration has proved beneficial for both climbers and peregrines.
  • 2019: CCC worked with Wild South and the Grandfather District of Pisgah National Forest to protect two rare species (Hudsonia Montana and Liatris Helleri) in Linville Gorge.
  • 2019: CCC initiated a trail feasibility study to adopt the Warpin Endorphins area as a system trail, located in Pisgah National Forest’s Grandfather District.
  • 2019: CCC worked with Pisgah National Forest’s Grandfather District and the Blue Ridge Parkway service to remove over 100 graffiti sites along highway 221.
  • 2020: CCC has joined the Recreation Round Table, hosted by Outdoor Gear Builders
  • Feb 2020- June 2020: Public comment period for the Pisgah Nantahala Plan