One hundred years ago this month, one of the worst natural disasters in our region’s history devastated communities from Asheville to Fort Mill. The Great Flood of 1916 was the result of two hurricanes saturating the Southern Appalachian Mountains and causing the Catawba and French Broad Rivers to dramatically overflow. Landslides swept away homes, dams burst, lives were lost, railroad and highway bridges vanished, lumber and textile mills were destroyed and the Lake Wylie dam collapsed.
In addition to the tremendous rains, a rapid land use change – the loss of forested watersheds – greatly aggravated the damage.
In the early 20th Century, timber companies moved into the Southern Appalachians and used industrial scale clear-cutting to harvest and provide wood products for a growing nation. The forests’ critical role in storing and managing water was unappreciated and perhaps even uncomprehended at the time. According to N.C. State University, one large tree can lift up to 100 gallons of water out of the ground and discharge it into the air in a day. When the rains of July 1916 came there wasn’t enough forest left to slow all the water.
By 2004 when Hurricanes Frances and Ivan hit western North Carolina, the recovery of forests on private and public lands helped save lives and reduce property damage. Although industrial scale clear-cutting is no longer a threat to mountain forests, another rapid land use change is spreading across the South – urban sprawl.
Most of our forests are privately owned and are vulnerable to conversion. Beyond the direct and negative impact to our state’s natural resources, the loss of forestland leaves North Carolina and surrounding states more susceptible to future floods and even droughts.
The good news is we’ve made slow but steady progress in conserving both public and private forestland. Through partnerships, we’re helping to ensure the sustainable management of these areas while also preserving their water storage and filtering qualities.
Thanks to investments from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), Pisgah National Forest now protects over 500,000 acres in the headwaters of the Catawba and French Broad River Basins. The North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF), Parks & Recreation Trust Fund, and private donors have helped protect over 41,000 acres in the South Mountains in state parks and game lands.
The new 8,000-acre Headwaters State Forest in Transylvania County, which protects the East Fork of the French Broad River, is nearing completion thanks to the efforts of a variety of partners, including Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler, the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program funded by the LWCF, the CWMTF, The Conservation Fund and the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy.
The LWCF has been vital to these and other critical forest conservation efforts in the region. LWCF is annually funded by the U.S. Congress, which includes North Carolina’s U.S. delegation representing the Southern Appalachians: U.S. Senators Richard Burr and Thomas Tillis and U.S. Representatives Mark Meadows, Patrick McHenry, Robert Pittenger and Alma Adams. Their leadership is critical at a time when we need to be doing more to reinforce protection of the forests that contribute to North Carolina’s economy and environment.
It’s often said that hindsight is 20/20, but the Great Flood that hit North Carolina 100 years ago holds critical lessons for the future. While we cannot control where or when the next flood or drought will hit, we can ensure that our forests and other natural defenses against extreme events are healthy and protected. The residents of our state and the natural resources that set it apart deserve no less.
Bill Holman is North Carolina State Director of The Conservation Fund.