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Conservation: An Ally When the Skies Open
The torrential rains in Henderson County earlier this month swelled the streams and rivers to alarming levels. In particular, the monsoon-like downpours brought about road closures that blocked the highway running through the Hickory Nut Gorge, temporarily isolating the communities of Gerton, Bat Cave and Lake Lure from one another.
(The weather conditions also forced the postponement of CMLC's Bearwallow Beast Trail Run & Festival that I extended an invitation to all last month; the event has been rescheduled for Sunday, June 23 — please consider joining us once more.)
Fortunately, the May flood caused only temporary road closures in our region. Though certainly noteworthy, the impact from heavy rainfall this year pales in comparison to when the skies opened above the Hickory Nut Gorge in July of 1916.
Beginning on the evening of July 3, the rains started falling, and they continued to pour down with immense fury for well over a week. In a 1976 essay, Frank FitzSimons described the onset of the flood: "For ten days and nights water steadily poured from the low, overhanging grey clouds that topped even the lowest ridges. So low-hanging were those dismal, dark clouds that a body felt that one could almost reach up and pull them apart for a glimpse of the sun."
The 1916 flood was the culmination of a most unlikely occurrence: the remnants of two hurricanes that traveled inland and stalled over Western North Carolina — one storm that journeyed north from the Gulf of Mexico and another that came west from the Atlantic Ocean. The second storm reached the region just as the first had exhausted itself. It was truly an unprecedented period of relentless rain, and Henderson County, along with the entire region, would suffer its consequences.
At the time of the flood, Highway 74 had recently been constructed through the Hickory Nut Gorge, connecting Asheville to the small communities of Gerton, Bat Cave, Chimney Rock and beyond. So voluminous was the accumulation of water from the 1916 rains, the deluge made quick work of eradicating the newly built road, washing away its many bridges with ease and burying the road with boulders and debris up and down the gorge.
In fact, the Rocky Broad River, which runs about half of the length of the gorge, wasn't always so rocky. Photos of the river before the flood resemble most other large streams in our region, its bottom lined with a plethora of small river rocks. Ever since, large boulders — many the size cars or even school buses — clutter the river for miles and miles. These giant boulders — weighing tons — tumbled into the river after sliding off of the mountains high above and then washed downstream as if they were apples bobbling effortlessly in the water.
East of Gerton in the community of Bearwallow (a hamlet no longer present on most maps, thanks largely to the immense destruction of the flood), the 1916 torrent was so strong that it literally picked up the Bearwallow Baptist Church from one side of Hickory Creek and deposited it on the opposite side. Beyond repair, the church was rebuilt in 1920 upstream in Gerton. Not coincidentally, the chapel now sits on a hill high above the creek.
In Middle Fork, between Bat Cave and Gerton, a farmer's house was washed away in a massive slide that took the lives of his wife and children. Altogether, eight people were killed in the gorge during the 1916 flood as a result of drowning or landslides.
When immense quantities of water rain down from the sky, our mountainsides can harness only so much volume. Ultimately, enough water will cause any slope to give way — this is a natural process of erosion that formed the very peaks and valleys that make our regions so beautiful and dynamic. But human impact on the land can unnaturally accelerate this process in a way that nature never intended.
Overdevelopment and deforestation of steep mountainsides and banks of rivers and tributaries limit their water-bearing capacity and dramatically intensify soil loss. This not only leads to increased sedimentation — the single most significant source of pollution in our WNC waters — but greater incidence of devastating landslides that cause loss of property, blockage of roads and trails, damage to homes and sometimes loss of life.
Conservation of our region's land not only protects the scenic views that we hold dear, but helps to limit the impact of these floods when they strike. It also safeguards water quality by reducing sedimentation in our mountain waters.
Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy's efforts to conserve the natural landscape of the Hickory Nut Gorge and other locations throughout Henderson and Transylvania counties and beyond play a critical role in reducing the impacts of floods, now and in the future.
"The importance of land cover becomes imperative when you have an event like the 1916 flood," said Tom Fanslow, CMLC land protection director. "There exist generally acceptable levels of deforestation and impervious surfaces for land development, and in most years those levels will be fine. But what the 1916 flood teaches us is that there are times where forest cover is critically important, not only to the well-being of the environment but to the well-being of human beings who are otherwise watching their homes and civilization being washed away."
CMLC now holds conservation easements atop Bearwallow Mountain, hosting headwater streams of the gorge, as well as Middle Fork, the area most ravaged by the 1916 flood. The Hickory Nut Forest Eco-Community not only hosts a CMLC conservation easement along Hickory Creek, a primary tributary of the Rocky Broad River, but the development has a low density to keep impact on the land to a minimum. The neighborhood was planned with the goal of maintaining maximum forest cover and preserving the natural hydrology of its mountain slopes.
And the lands within the 600-acre Florence Nature Preserve, owned and stewarded by CMLC, will remain forever forested to effectively buffer several miles of streams that drain into the community of Gerton before flowing into the Rocky Broad River.
So the next time the skies open up and the rivers start swelling, consider that a greater emphasis on land conservation — by buffering our waterways and maintaining the integrity of the mountains' steep slopes — might serve as a first line of defense against the devastating consequences of the next flood.
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.