Wednesday, March 15, 2017


On November 28, 2016, a wildfire of unprecedented scale swept through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) and spilled over into the surrounding community of Gatlinburg, claiming 14 lives and burning a total of 17,904 acres, and forever changing the lives of those in the greater GSMNP community. Today, spring is coming—has come. Gatlinburg is bustling. And it is clear that the ecosystem will recover smoothly, and the community, though branded with the memory of hometown disaster, will return to its position as a viable tourist destination, stronger for it.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    What began as a small 1.5-acre fire smoldering slowly in the duff—the layer of organic matter on the forest floor—atop the popular Chimney Tops on November 23, 5.5 miles from Gatlinburg, was rapidly bolstered into a raging blaze four days after Thanksgiving when winds registered up to 87 MPH ripped through the Smokies, already bone-dry due to several months of drought.

    The scene was chaotic and undoubtedly sorrowful; and the impacts on businesses, families, and livelihoods cannot be downplayed. However, despite the sensationalized portrayals of the situation that has colored people’s perceptions of what remains of the GSMNP, the reality of the impacts of the fire is hopeful.

    Of the Park’s 522,427 acres, only 11,410 acres—roughly 2 percent—were consumed by the fire. What’s more, because of the high winds that contributed to the rapid magnification of the fire, about 65 percent of the area that was consumed was only very lightly burned, resulting in burned undergrowth and the bases of trunks, but very few dead trees. The area of the Park that was burned intensely—about 1,000 acres—represents just 0.2 percent of the entire area.

    Bringing even more hope, GSMNP Management Assistant, Dana Soehn, pointed out that “The fire occurred outside of the growing season, so most vegetation was dormant. Trees and shrubs were only highly effected in about 10 percent of the burned area.” In a brief walk through the forest, adjacent to one of the most heavily burned areas, buds are becoming visible on even the smallest of saplings.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    The soil within the burn zone is relatively intact, too. “Duff layers, root mats, and seed banks are mostly intact in over 90 percent of the burn area,” said Soehn, and it shows. Daffodils, grasses, and groundcovers have emerged from the now moist ground as some of the first signs of spring.

    To ease the worries of those who value the Park for its wildlife viewing opportunities, wildlife have shown no signs of suffering. According to GSMNP Wildlife Biologist Bill Stiver, only two of an estimated 1200 black bears inhabiting the Park are known to have perished due to the fire. Many, in fact—including the majority of the black bear sows—were had already begun hibernation when the fire swept through.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    Species that prefer open woodlands—like bats, of which the Park houses 13 species, 4 of which are critically endangered within the Park—will find refuge in the newly created habitat, as will deer, which thrive around edge habitat and in new growth forests. Turkeys were observed in some of the burned areas almost immediately following the fire. A winter burn affects a stronger spring green-up and a long sightline, which provide the birds with food and security.

    The fisheries within the Park were perhaps the least effected, though 55 miles of stream were engulfed in fire. “No impacts from fire relative to nitrates, sulfates, pH, or temperature have been found,” said GSMNP Fisheries Biologist Matt Kulp, citing 20 years of previous baseline data. “There has been no significant difference in sediment in the streams, either,” said Kulp, as he released a healthy wild rainbow electroshocked from a Little Pigeon River tributary stream.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    The 31 miles of trails closed because of impacts from the fire have mostly been repaired and reopened to the public.

    Recreation, in the form of wildlife watching, fishing, and hiking, will resume in the Park this spring, providing little reason for visitors to postpone vacations and trips to the region. The community, which sees 11.3 million visitors annually, remains fully functional. In fact, record visitorship for the month of December was recorded the month following the fire.

    Ecologically speaking, wildfire is a natural event intrinsic to eastern ecosystems, and may even be interpreted as beneficial to the diversity of habitat and wildlife within the Park. What’s more, the Chimney Tops 2 wildfire will offer a unique opportunity for visitors and scientists to study and become familiar with wildfire, which has been largely avoided through management for recreation. The GSMNP is, and will continue to be, a natural treasure in the heart of the East.

    Want to help the Smokies? Go see it for yourself.    

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian


On Tuesday, February 14, Patagonia, a domineering outdoor brand, announced that it would not continue to attend the biannual Outdoor Retailer trade show, historically held in Salt Lake City, if it didn’t relocate from the state of Utah. The reason? Utah’s stance on federal public land conservation.

Utah—66.5 percent of which is comprised of federally owned public land—is a frontrunner in the movement to transfer federal land to the states. Many sportsmen and women are concerned that following through with this intent will result in the states’ massive selling-off of these once-public lands to private owners for development or personal ownership, eliminating the ability to use them for recreation.

    In late January, Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz introduced legislation in Congress that would revoke legal authority from Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service authorities, followed by another bill to sell off 3.3 million acres of public land in 10 states across the west. Shortly thereafter, yet another Utah Congressman, Sen. Orrin Hatch, sparked national research into the possibility of the 
    Trump administration rescinding protection of the 1.35 million-acre Bear Ears National Monument designated by Obama as a lame duck. Gov. Herbert then submitted a resolution urging the newly-installed administration to do just that.

    Following Patagonia’s ballsy maneuver, on Thursday, February 16, the Outdoor Industry Association issued an ultimatum to Republican Utah Gov. Gary Herbert: Cease efforts to scrap Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act, rescind Bear Ears National Monument, and transfer federal public lands to the states, or they would sever their ties with Utah and take their heavyweight trade show elsewhere.

    Just hours following the conference call, the Outdoor Retailer show announced that they would be leaving Salt Lake City following the summer of 2018.

    Outdoor Retailer’s Summer Market is the most comprehensive and lucrative trade show of its kind, annually attracting thousands of vendors marketing gear and apparel for outdoor and adventure sports including hiking, backpacking, cycling, climbing, water/paddle sports, fishing, mountain biking, running, adventure travel, and more. All of these sports depend upon public lands for their enjoyment, making Utah’s public lands political atmosphere particularly offensive to the show.

    The show annually funnels $50 million into Utah’s economy, making it a true heavyweight attraction for the state. Patagonia’s igniting move was intended to raise awareness of the show’s political and economic contradiction.

    “Patagonia will no longer attend the Outdoor Retailer show in Utah and we are confident other outdoor manufacturers and retailers will join us in moving our investment to a state that values our industry and promotes public lands conservation,” Rose Marcario, CEO of Patagonia, wrote following the official announcement.

    The high-profile company was right in their expectation, and the outdoor sporting public has widely praised them for their stewarding leadership regarding this important issue, proving quite plainly that on issues involving intangible virtues, money trumps talk and affects change most effectively.

    Though the show will convene in Salt Lake in the summer of 2018, Outdoor Retailer is actively in search of a new home, and is taking bids from other states that have a strong tradition of outdoor pursuits and public land celebration. Utah is being ignored, which has created internal conflict within the state’s government, severely crippled by the loss of so much annual revenue.

    Hopefully, this loss will inspire Utah’s representative leadership to rethink the value of outdoor recreation and the public lands that permit them. Given Utah’s leadership on the public lands transfer issue, their conversion may be a pivotal moment in this land war that will prove to be nothing less than vital for the future of outdoor sports in America as we currently and freely enjoy them.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


In late February, the Augusta County Board of Supervisors voted to ban hydraulic fracturing by way of a zoning ordinance, making it the first county in the Old Dominion to totally prohibit the invasive natural gas drilling practice. The move has been praised by sportsmen and conservation groups, as it effectively protects clean water and wildlife in the county, which includes 193,000 acres of the George Washington National Forest and countless headwater streams.
A fracking drill pad in the Pine Creek Valley of Pennsylvania. Photo by Matt Reilly.

    Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is the process of pumping pressurized chemicals, water, and sand down drill holes in the ground to crack open fissures in shale which contain small amounts of natural gas.

    The practice poses potential public and environmental health issues, since spills threaten to contaminate ground or surface water with hydrocarbons and other fracking fluids. The chemicals included in the pressurized fracking fluids are often undisclosed, and different companies use different mixtures. Such lack of transparency has been cause for suspicion.

    Furthermore, constructing a drill pad requires the clear-cutting of several acres of forest. Lights on the drills are often left on at night, illuminating surrounding forest and disrupting normal wildlife habits.

    But the impacts of fracking are hardly felt just at the drill site. Infrastructure is necessary to construct the pads and to shuttle materials and product. Roads must be constructed for the large trucks that are used to haul equipment and the actual drill to the site. Pipelines—akin to the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline—are necessary for funneling captured gas to market. Both of these structures inevitably cross many headwater streams.

    Considering the current need to harness new energy sources in the United States, and considering the alternative strategies, fracking natural gas doesn’t stand to be an environmental no-go, as continued coal mining could be labeled. However, it must be done responsibly and transparently. That means knowing where fracking is a responsible choice and where it is not.

    In the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, the construction of roads and natural gas pipelines crossing headwater mountain streams would be a risky gamble of our prized native brook trout—the official state fish—, the ecological health downstream, and the state’s water supply. Nearly four million people—whether they know it or not—source their drinking water from National Forest land in Virginia, including those living in Richmond and D.C.

    What’s more, much of Augusta’s geology is “karst,” meaning it is comprised of soluble rock, commonly limestone and dolomite. Thus, any pipeline leak would be very likely to contaminate groundwater in a large area and eventually reach surface water.

    Despite the potential dangers, the National Forest Service allows hydraulic fracturing on forest lands across the country. However, following a November 2014 announcement, the current plan for the George Washington National Forest allows hydraulic fracturing on 177,000 acres, where private mineral rights and leases to oil and gas companies are pre-existing.

    Augusta County’s decision to ban such activities is, in fact, legal. The Virginia Code grants local governments the authority to “regulate, restrict, permit, prohibit, and determine” land uses, such as “the excavation or mining of soil or other natural resources.”

    Still, the decision to install an outright ban on fracking may ruffle some industry feathers, though some experts speculate that a ban will be more effective in deflecting potential lawsuits than a seemingly always-porous regulatory process. Regardless, considering what we have to lose in the mountains of Augusta County, the ban is essential.

    Augusta County’s assertion of a ban on fracking is a clear and confident placement of the value of natural resource health and clean drinking water over the potential gain offered by natural gas fracking.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian