Hugh Irwin recognized for lifetime of service to Southern forests

Hugh Irwin, recipient of SELC’s Southeastern Stewardship Lifetime Achievement Award, poses with Virginia Office Director Sarah Francisco after receiving the award. (© Mike Mather/SELC)

Hugh Irwin’s tireless dedication and determination in protecting southern forests over more than three decades of work have shaped our landscape. SELC recently recognized his immeasurable impact on the Southern Appalachian mountains with its Southeastern Stewardship Lifetime Achievement Award.

Irwin’s roots are in Tennessee, where he earned a B.A. in Physics from Vanderbilt University and a Master of Science in Forest Ecology from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He found his calling when he combined his deep love and local knowledge of mountain forests with his scientific expertise to develop and pursue a vision for the conservation of public lands in the Southern Appalachians, lands that form backbone of our region.

Irwin began this work in the Cherokee National Forest of eastern Tennessee, monitoring timber sales and road construction and rallying support for the first federal Wilderness bills to permanently protect some of the most special places in the forest. During an era when the U.S. Forest Service clearcut thousands of acres and built miles of roads deep into the region’s forests every year, Irwin recognized the need to simultaneously address immediate, site-specific threats and to develop a long-term, regional vision for the future. He helped to establish Cherokee Forest Voices, a coalition of individuals and member organizations advocating for the ecological values of the Cherokee National Forest, and served as the group’s first staff coordinator. When the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition formed in the mid-1990s, Hugh moved to North Carolina and became a hub of regional forest conservation efforts.

Forest Protector

Hugh Irwin has dedicated his life's work to preserving public forest lands in the Southeast.

While at Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, Irwin was the lead author of a report titled “Return the Great Forest: A Conservation Vision for the Southern Appalachian Region,” which provided the roadmap still in use today for protecting, connecting, and restoring key fish and wildlife habitat, outstanding recreation areas, and special natural areas. He also has been in the vanguard of applying geospatial analysis to ecological restoration. Over the years as the Forest Service’s priorities evolved, Irwin welcomed the agency’s more sustainable approach and encouraged greater emphasis on ecological restoration and public engagement.

In 2011, Irwin took his considerable talents to The Wilderness Society, where he continues his work, most recently playing a lead role in the conservation community’s participation in the ongoing revision of the management plan for the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina. He also is lead author of The Wilderness Society’s Mountain Treasure publications for North Carolina and Tennessee, which identify special, but unprotected, areas of the Nantahala-Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests.

Throughout his career, Irwin partnered with SELC and local organizations to prevent inappropriate logging, road-building, and other development on national forest lands in the Southern Appalachians and to propose better solutions. To name a few, the watersheds of Citico Creek in southeastern Tennessee, Beaverdam Creek in northeastern Tennessee, and Fire’s Creek in western North Carolina would all look very different today without Irwin’s efforts. He has contributed to the inventories of roadless areas and the development of management plans for forests across the region, and has generously shared his advice and experience with many partners. Certainly, without Irwin, the national forests of the Southern Appalachians would have fewer wilderness and roadless areas, fewer old growth forests and pristine trout streams, and fewer beautiful scenic hikes and protected natural areas. SELC has been fortunate to work with Hugh Irwin for many years, and this award is a small token of our appreciation for his sustained and passionate work on behalf of our forests.


Irwin is the first recipient of SELC’s Southeastern Stewardship Lifetime Achievement Award. This award recognizes partners of SELC who have been instrumental in protecting special places in our region. Without the excellent work of dedicated people – work carried out with remarkable character, commitment, and conservation ethics – our region would look very different today. Motivated by a deep love of and sense of place, and an extraordinary drive to protect those places, some stewards have gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that our distinctive Southern landscape is here for future generations. This award celebrates the lifetime achievements of remarkable allies.

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