Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sacred Groves - 3

The concept of sacred groves hasn’t caught on so well in America, if by “sacred groves” you mean patches of forest dedicated to folk deities, groves protected by local communities over the course of generations.


While there may be hundreds of such sacred groves in India, I’m not sure where you would find the equivalent in the USA. Perhaps the National Parks and National Forests are as close as you’ll come. One thing’s for sure: without those tracts of protected land, life in the Southern Appalachians would be very different from what it is today. Those of us who seek refuge in these special places owe a tremendous debt to the people who preceded us by a century and overcame the objections of powerful moneyed interests.

The year 2011 marks an important anniversary, the centennial of the Weeks Act. This federal legislation authorized the purchase of forest lands in the eastern United States and was part of an interesting turning point in American history. Up until that time, the government had been granting public lands to private individuals, (and in the West, reserving parks and forests from lands that had never left the public domain) but as the population of the country grew, there was a recognition of the need to acquire private lands for the public good.

At the turn of the twentieth century, timber interests (enabled by the recent extension of rail lines) ravaged the southern mountains. During the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt several reports examined the damage generated by poor logging and farming practices customary throughout the region. The reports featured photographic evidence, for example:

Severely eroded steep rocky slope, the result of bad crop farming, along Scotts Creek, Jackson County, west of Asheville, N.C., after heavy rains of May 21, 1901. Scattered hardwoods and pitch pine are visible on hillside. (NA:95G-23515).

Message from the President of the United States Transmitting a Report of the Secretary of Agriculture in Relation to the Forests, Rivers, and Mountains of the Southern Appalachian Region (1902) was a landmark document. This report (which includes some stunning photographs) can be viewed online at

The report described the various river basins of the region, including the Little Tennesse (and the Tuckasegee):

[1,018,054 acres; 91 per cent wooded.]

All of the land available for tillage has been cleared. Corn is the staple crop on both alluvium and upland, the yield of small grain, grass, and apples being much smaller than in other mountain counties farther north....

Orchards have been planted, but are much neglected, and only a few apples are produced for market....

Much of the best valley land has been badly washed, especially on Tuckasegee River and Scott Creek. There are also many badly worn steep slopes on these streams and elsewhere....

The best timber has been much culled for 20 miles from the Southern Railway, which crosses the middle of the basin. Repeated forest fires, started with a view to improve the pasturage, have destroyed much timber on dry south slopes, and by continued suppression of the young growth have greatly reduced the density....

By describing the abysmal treatment of forests and farmlands in this region and proposing a plan for responsible management, this report set the stage for the Weeks Act. Passage of the legislation was far from easy, however. A headline in the April 1908 edition of the timber industry trade paper, The Southern Lumberman, gleefully announced “Appalachian Forest Bill Dead.” But news of its demise was greatly exaggerated. Three years later, the Weeks Act was passed, authorizing the acquisition of forest lands in the east, including what would become the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests.

The unlikely rationale for forest protection was stated in a forest service document published shortly after passage of the Weeks Act:

The general purpose of this law is to secure the maintenance of a perpetual growth of forest on the watersheds of navigable streams where such growth will materially aid in preventing floods, in improving low waters, in preventing erosion of steep slopes and the silting up of the river channels, and thereby improve the flow of water for navigation.

(In fact, this was the argument advanced to establish a constitutional basis - under the commerce clause - for the Weeks Act. Until 1911, the legislation had been successfully suppressed due to constitutional concerns.) The forest service document continued:

While the improvement of the flow of navigable streams is the fundamental purpose, other benefits incidental in character but nevertheless important will be kept in view. Among these are (1) protection against disastrous erosion of the soil on mountain slopes and against the destruction of the soil and soil cover by forest fires; (2) preservation of water powers, since, like navigation, they depend for their value upon the evenness of streamflow; (3) preservation of the purity and regularity of flow of the mountain streams, with a view to their use for the water supply of towns and cities; (4) preservation of a timber supply to meet the needs of the industries of the country; (5) preservation of the beauty and attractiveness of the uplands for the recreation and pleasure of the people.

The report outlined the areas that were of the highest priority for purchase by the federal government, including these nearby locations:


Lands in North Carolina situated in Haywood County north and west of Jonathan Creek and west of Pigeon River below the mouth of Jonathan Creek; in Swain County north of the Little Tennessee and Tuckasegee Rivers; lands in Tennessee in Cooke County south of Denny Mountain and the Big Pigeon River; in Sevier County south of Chestnut Ridge, Galtinburg post office, and Cove Mountain; and in Blount County south of Roundtop Mountain and Tuckaleeche post office and east of Hesse Creek and Abram Creek.

Lands situated in Jackson County north of Little Hogback Mountain, Laurel Mountain, Sheep Cliff, and Shortoff Mountain, and east of Buck Knob, East Laport post office, and Carver Mountain, and south of the Asheville and Murphy Branch of the Southern Railroad; lands in Haywood County south of Pinnacle Knob, Snaggy Ridge, and the post offices of Three Forks, Cecil, Retreat, and Cruso; lands in Buncombe County south of Dunsmore post office and Stony Knob; lands in Henderson County west of Seniard Mountain and Buck Knob; and lands in Transylvania County north of the Hendersonville and Lake Toxaway Branch of the Southern Railroad, and Lake Toxaway, and west of the Boylston Creek.

Yes, the Weeks Act and its aftermath reflect a utilitarian view of the forests. Still, if I were to set off in search of a “sacred grove” I’m not sure I could find a better place to start.

Though I’ve not gotten my hands on it, the Winter/Spring 2011 issue of Appalachia features a story by Tom Wagner, Public Land Conservation in the East: The Weeks Act Story

There will be various observances and exhibits celebrating the Weeks Act centennial all this year.

No comments: