Study: Southerners love — and want more — wilderness

According to a study by researchers at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, residents that spend time exploring outdoor areas and live within half-a-day’s drive of Southern Appalachian national forests are overwhelmingly in favor of preserving and expanding wilderness areas.

The report found that 89 percent of those surveyed supported the preservation of wilderness areas and 88 percent of those who had recently visited a wilderness area thought more wildlands should be protected.

“It’s clear from these findings that there’s nothing more valuable in a crowded world than wild, untamed places,” said Sam Evans, Leader of SELC's National Forests and Parks Program. “While these places belong to all of us as Americans, when you’re in wilderness, the experience is yours alone.”

The Appalachians are an iconic American mountain range with more than half of the U.S. population living within an 8-hour drive of its southern region. The study found that people most often visit wilderness areas for day hiking, photography, swimming, and camping. There are nearly 50 wilderness areas spanning across almost a half million acres of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

Most federally managed forests allow timbering, oil and gas drilling, and other extractive uses, along with recreation facilities like cabins, campgrounds, and other structures. But those designated as wilderness areas are forever protected as wild places, preserving them in their natural state and protecting wildlife and rare species habitat. These wild places also protect water quality and act as a buffer against the damaging effects of a changing climate.

“These unique public lands allow us to experience and create memories in some of the country’s wildest places,” said Jill Gottesman, The Wilderness Society’s Southern Appalachian Conservation Specialist. “These areas are some of the most valuable, intact lands in the continental U.S. due to their connectivity, biodiversity, and sheer remoteness. This study shows that Southerners are ready to work together to protect our Southern Appalachian wildlands for future generations.”

Researchers surveyed 1,250 respondents across Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee that had visited a protected natural area in the past five years and lived with a half-day drive of a Southern Appalachian Mountains. The study examined respondent’s beliefs about the environment, their recreational visits to protected areas, and the values they associate with wilderness.

In the study, visitors said they most often learned about new wilderness areas through word of mouth. After spending time in these areas, they most valued the role wild places play in protecting our water quality and wildlife habitat.

“There’s nothing like the feeling of freedom when you step onto these unspoiled lands, with only adventure and exploration in front of you, and clearly I’m not the only Southerner who highly values these wild spaces,” said SELC’s Evans.

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