The Western North Carolina Alliance supports efforts to allow natural fires to burn in and around Linville Gorge as long as the safety of human lives and property can be assured. In the likely event that some natural fires are suppressed because of concern for human health and safety, we endorse the use of prescribed fire as a surrogate.  Our endorsement stems from the following beliefs:

  • There are rare and endangered species at Linville Gorge that require fire for survival.
  • There are many other species and several ecosystems at Linville Gorge that benefit from fire.
  • Fire is an important natural process.
  • The fire suppression of the past 100 years has been harmful.
  • Suppression of natural fire ignitions is against the spirit of Wilderness.

Linville Gorge is a priceless natural area, federally designated Wilderness, and one of the most visually stunning places in North Carolina. The Gorge is loved and used by rock climbers, hikers, hunters, anglers, naturalists and sightseers.  From a conservation standpoint, the Gorge is home to one of the largest expanses of old-growth forest in the eastern U.S. and unique assemblages of plants and animals.

A recent Forest Service proposal to allow prescribed fire in Linville Gorge has caused controversy and raised opposition from some people who own homes near the Gorge and others who have a purist interpretation of the Wilderness Act.

However, at the Western North Carolina Alliance, we are actively working to increase Wilderness designation in North Carolina, and we support the proposal to return fire to Linville Gorge. We believe that both natural and prescribed fire in Linville Gorge will benefit the land, ecosystems and the people of North Carolina.

prd_036277

Controlled burn in Linville Gorge/Gary Kauffman

It is widely acknowledged that the 100 years of fire suppression practiced by the U.S. Forest Service was a mistake, that suppression of natural fires has interrupted important natural processes, harmed wildlife populations, led to massive and undesirable changes in forest structure and species composition, increased fuel loads and, in addition, made both forests and human communities more vulnerable to catastrophic fire. These are generally conceived of as problems of the arid West, but they also apply in the Southern Appalachians, and no place more than Linville Gorge.

Linville Gorge and the rest of the Blue Ridge Escarpment lie in the rain shadow of mountains to the west. The southerly aspects and steep terrain of the Escarpment produce soils that drain and dry quickly after rain. These conditions create a landscape that is heavily influenced by fire.

Linville Gorge stands out as being exceptionally steep and prone to fire even when compared to the rest of the Blue Ride Escarpment. Ecologist Cecil Frost has documented that Linville Gorge receives a high number dry lightning strikes compared to other places in the mountains.  According to Forest Service records, between 1955 and 1985, there were 17 recorded lightning ignited fires on the east rim of Linville Gorge, all of which were put out using aircraft under the misguided fire policies of the day.

Frost estimates that 10 of those fires had the potential to burn the entire east rim of Linville Gorge, yielding an average fire interval of 3.1 years.  A dendrochronology study of 300-year-old Table Mountain pines from Linville Mountain by researchers from Texas A&M University examined the rings of old trees.  This study on the west rim of the Gorge found fire scars on an average of every seven years, from 1700-1950, after which all fires stopped due to suppression.

The history of frequent fire at Linville Gorge has fostered unique evolutionary lines.  Most notable among these is mountain golden heather (Hudsonia montana). Mountain golden heather is known from only two ridges on Earth – both on Pisgah National Forest – and the largest population resides on the east rim of Linville Gorge. There are several other rare, uncommon, and common species at Linville Gorge that require fire to thrive.

hudsonia_montana_closeup_lg

Mountain Golden Heather/Gary Kauffman

Mountain golden heather has long been known as a fire-dependent species, and its numbers were trending downward, even with micro-burns conducted for it in the 1990s.  That changed in 2007 when a severe drought made suppression of an April lightning fire impossible.  The Shortoff Fire burned into the month of June and would have burned the entire east rim of the Gorge if fire fighters had not contained it.  While the fire was severe – more severe than most people would have wanted – and perhaps made worse by 50 years of fuel accumulation, mountain golden heather has since increased by 200 percent in the area of the burn. However, these gains will not be permanent and an ecosystem that evolved in a regime of fire every three to seven years cannot thrive under a fire regime of 50 to 100 years.

These are the horns of the dilemma: the conservation community now understands that fire is essential for maintaining the dry forests communities and rare species at Linville Gorge and the Forest Service is beginning to plan for the possibility of letting the frequent lightning ignited fires there burn, but they can’t do that, because they need to ensure the safety of homes built on the edge of the Wilderness.

One possible solution to the problem is to allow fire managers to set fires on the ridges of the gorge in conditions when the effects will not be so severe and the safety of lives and property can be assured.  With time, as the communities around the Gorge make preparations to defend themselves for inevitable wildfires, as fuel loads are reduced, and as the skill and comfort level of fire fighters increase, it may be possible to let all lightning fires in and around the Gorge run their course, allowing the Gorge to be truly wild.

The Wilderness Act states that, “a wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and the community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The word trammel, meaning trap, is a key word in this section, as is the concept of human domination and control.

At the Western North Carolina Alliance, we consider the control of wildfires in Wilderness to be against the spirit of the Wilderness Act.  To be wild or a Wilderness implies that an area is uncontrolled, and the radical change of the fire regime at the gorge is to control, trap, or trammel the land and “the community of life.”

This has had many negative consequences.

Regardless of our opinions about fire and wilderness, we, as a society, hold the health and safety of human communities to be paramount. This means that if lightning strikes and causes a fire in dangerous conditions, it will be put out.  It means that the land and the species it supports need a surrogate for those fires that are put out to meet the human need for safety.

It seems to us that prescribed fire is one reasonable solution to the problem.

The U.S. Forest Service is in the process of developing a proposal on fire management in Linville Gorge.

At the time of this writing, the scoping period for the project is open until Jan 31. (Period extended as of Jan. 10.)

Hearing from the public will help the Forest Service develop alternatives that consider any issues voiced by the public. The Western North Carolina Alliance encourages people with an interest in Pisgah National Forest to study the issues and comment on the Linville Gorge Wilderness Prescribed Fire Scoping, whether they support fire in the Wilderness or not.

You can find the scoping for the Linville Gorge Prescribed Fire Proposal HERE.

(Download a pdf of this article HERE.)

Fire Loving Plant Species at Linville Gorge

Common Name Scientific Name Status
Heller’s Blazing Star Liatris helleri Threatened – G2
Mountain Golden Heather Hudsonia montana Threatened – G1
Sweet Pinesap Monotropsis odorata Rare – G3
Appalachian Golden Banner Thermopsis mollis Rare – G3
Mountain Witch Alder Fothergilla major Rare – G3
Pine Barren Death Camas Stemanthium leimanthoides Rare – S1, G4
Shale-barren Blazing-star Liatris turgida Rare – G3
Turkey Beard Xerophyllum asphodeloides Uncommon
Fragrant Goldenrod Solidago odora Common
Narrow Leaf Aster Ionactis linariifolia Uncommon
Little Blue Stem Schizachyrium scoparium Common
Indian Grass Sorghastrum nutans Common
Yellow False Indigo Baptisia tinctoria Common
Hairy Lespedeza Lespedeza hirta Uncommon
Appalachian Sunflower Helianthus atrorubens Uncommon
Clasping Aster Symphyotrichum patens Uncommon
Grass-leaved Golden-aster Pityopsis graminifolia Common
Maryland Golden-aster Chrysopsis mariana Common
Grey Goldenrod Solidago nemoralis Common
Wavy-leaved Aster Symphyotrichum undulatum Uncommon
Rosinweed Silphium compositum Uncommon
Silky Oat-grass Danthonia sericea Common
Carolina Lily Lilium michauxii Uncommon
Hillside Blueberry Vaccinium pallidum Common
Appalachian Deerberry Vaccinium stamineum Common
Table Mountain Pine Pinus pungens Uncommon-Common
Pitch Pine Pinus rigida Common
Sweet-fern Comptonia peregrinia Uncommon
Slender Spikegrass Chasmanthium laxum Uncommon