The Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee’s largest wildlife management area and single largest tract of public land, is the only national forest in the state. Its origin dates back to the Weeks Act of 1911, which gave the federal government the authority to purchase private land for the creation of national forests as a way to regulate the flow of navigable streams and timber production. In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson officially combined various federal lands along the southern Appalachian Mountains into national forests. But it was not until 1936, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt combined the Tennessee sections of the Unaka, Cherokee, and Pisgah National Forests, that the Cherokee National Forest was established in its present form. Today, its 640,000 acres are entirely within the borders of Tennessee, from Bristol to Chattanooga, and are divided into two sections by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Cherokee National Forest, which ranges in elevation from one thousand to six thousand feet above mean sea level, features steep slopes, narrow ridge tops, and narrow valley streams. Tennessee River tributaries drain almost all of the forest. Igneous and metamorphic rocks and highly deformed sedimentary rocks that range in age from Pre-Cambrian to Mississippian characterize its geology. Although the area’s extensive folding and numerous faults are considered inactive, an occasional small tremor is measured.
The forest is a highly diverse area and is home to at least twenty thousand species of plants and animals. Over 120 bird, 47 mammal, 55 reptile and amphibian, and 154 fish species can be found in the forest. Among the hundreds of wildlife species and thousands of plant species, several are federally designated as threatened or endangered. Part of the forest’s mission is to provide a safe habitat for these plants and animals as well as preserving watershed and wilderness areas and significant cultural resources, many of which date to the New Deal era and the impact of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
A long and diverse succession of occupation and land use that began at least ten thousand years ago characterizes the human history of the forest. The Cherokee Indians, for whom the national forest is named, used the forest resources primarily for hunting and gathering. The Cherokees saw their tribal lands and culture change dramatically after European contact. European-introduced diseases, wars, and cultural assimilation ravaged the Cherokees, and they were forcibly removed from their tribal lands in 1838.
White settlement dates to the early 1770s. The Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail passes through the Roan Scenic Area of the forest and memorializes the American victory over the British at King’s Mountain. After the Revolutionary War, European Americans steadily moved across the Appalachians into the Tennessee River valley, choosing the fertile lands of the interior over the rugged terrain of the forest. Those settlers who did stay in what is now the national forest were often Scots-Irish, German, or English and usually subsisted in isolated areas on farming and livestock grazing. The forest region remained much the same until northern mining and timber companies moved into the region in the early 1880s.
Timber companies realized the huge profit that could be made by logging the vast forests of the mountains, and, by 1910, that area supplied almost 40 percent of the timber produced in the United States. In consequence, outside interests owned large tracts of land while the number of small mountain farms decreased. New towns became population centers while local residents were employed in the forest and work camps. When the timber industry moved to harvest western forests after fifty years, it left the land of the Cherokee National Forest denuded and the people unemployed, poverty-stricken, and with limited natural resources.
Beginning in 1912, the federal government played an important role in the forest’s conservation by purchasing land that had been abused by the unregulated logging and mining industries. Roosevelt’s New Deal legacy illustrates even more the crucial help of the federal government in preserving the forest. The New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked to rebuild the national forest throughout the 1930s by planting hundreds of thousands of seedlings. The new trees aided drainage and soil conservation. The CCC also constructed trails, fire towers, recreation facilities, and local roads and highways. The CCC helped preserve and restore the forest as well as create an infrastructure enabling public access to its beauty and adventure. The Rock Creek Bath House, Tellico Plains Ranger Station, and Chilhowee Mountain Gazebo are just a few structures where the impact of the CCC can still be seen on the forest landscape.
Timber production, now regulated by the U.S. Forest Service, remains important, but recreational activities are now more common. Millions of people visit the forest each year to enjoy the scenery and recreational opportunities such as hiking, whitewater rafting, kayaking, camping, mountain biking, fishing, hunting, canoeing, driving for pleasure, horseback riding, and Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) riding. The Ocoee River in the southern section and the Appalachian Trail in both sections are internationally known for their exceptional recreational qualities. The forest also has over seventeen hundred cultural properties recorded on various landscapes within its boundaries, and the U.S. Forest Service and other preservation groups work to document, interpret, and protect these nonrenewable resources.
The forest has faced and continues to face challenges to vegetation and forest health. The American chestnut blight of the 1930s destroyed one of the largest and most important trees of the southern Appalachian forest. The Southern pine beetle epidemic infested and killed thousands of acres of yellow pine and continues as a threat. Other threats include gypsy moths, hemlock woolly adelgid, and dogwood anthracnose.
Another concern lies with the impact of recreation on the region’s environment and cultural resources. Several groups believe that officials give too much emphasis to recreation and tourism over conservation and preservation.
Regardless of how it is received, the Cherokee National Forest serves as a constant reminder of the federally sponsored conservation efforts of the twentieth century in East Tennessee as well as the state and nation as a whole. The reforestation, recreational development, and many structures of the forest exist as a part of a CCC landscape, without which visitors would not fully be able to access and enjoy the beauty, adventure, and culture of the area.
Carroll Van West, The New Deal Landscape of Tennessee (2001)