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Environment and History

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Environment and History

Endangered Species and Threatened Landscapes in Appalachia: Managing the Wild and the Human in the American Mountain South

Drew A. Swanson

Environment and History 18 (2012): 35-60. doi: 10.3197/096734012X13225062753589

Faced with the ideological and practical shortcomings of the American wilderness ideal, many environmentalists and scholars have redefined debates over managing wild lands in terms of biodiversity. Through a process of reduction, endangered species and threatened habitats have gradually become shorthand for biodiversity and hence touchstones of preservation efforts. This article draws on examples from the southern Appalachian Mountains to explore the benefits and drawbacks of placing endangered species and habitats at the centre of wildlands management, and suggests that this management rubric suffers from the same lack of historical context that plagues the wilderness idea. It traces the histories of two endangered habitats and their rare species in southern Appalachia. In the cases of endangered plants on Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina and the Roan Mountain grasslands along the Tennessee/North Carolina line, human disturbance actually benefited biodiversity. Contemporary management at both locations restricts traditional activities - activities that may have contributed to the formation and maintenance of these habitats - in the name of conservation but perpetuates similar disturbance practices in preservation efforts. This essay does not suggest abandoning the concept of endangered species or the work of the Endangered Species Act but instead warns against the facile replacement of the wilderness idea with a management alternative that carries many of the same burdens. The preservation of species and the rare habitats that support them is immensely important but managers must recognise that their preservation efforts always place an anthropocentric value on nature. Successful preservation of some of the most threatened species and landscapes depends on embracing this reality.

KEYWORDS: Appalachian Mountains, endangered species, landscape management, public lands, wilderness

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