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Our favorite stories about public lands and opportunities for you to get involved in protecting your outdoor experiences.


The Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests: An Economic Powerhouse for Western North Carolina

Tania Lown-Hecht


If you’re one of the 4.6 million people who visit the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests each year, you already know how incredible this corner of the Southern Appalachians is. Perhaps you’ve paddled down the Tuckaseegee River, climbed at Looking Glass, or hiked in Linville Gorge. No matter your preferred form of adventure, you know the Nantahala-Pisgah offers access to unparalleled outdoor recreation opportunities — access and opportunity that’s hard to put a price on.

But now a series of new economic studies, commissioned by the Outdoor Alliance, does just that: researchers from Eastern Kentucky University found that outdoor recreation in the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests generates $115 million in annual spending on paddling, climbing, and mountain biking — while also supporting local jobs and attracting both businesses and residents to Western North Carolina.

"More people visit the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests each year than Yellowstone — people who bike, paddle, raft, hike, climb, and otherwise enjoy these treasured public lands," said Adam Cramer, Executive Director of Outdoor Alliance. “These national forests provide adventures that feed the souls of millions of visitors. Collectively these visitors spend a ton of money and make these cherished national forests economic powerhouses that generate jobs and income throughout the region."

The research comes as U.S. Forest Service officials update a plan that will guide management of the Nantahala and Pisgah forests for the next 15 to 20 years. The studies illustrate why human-powered recreation deserves to be a top priority for the U.S. Forest Service as it completes this new plan in the coming months.

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"Not every part of the country is fortunate enough to boast amazing climbing, world-class whitewater, and top-notch trails, but here in Western North Carolina, we are that lucky," said Kevin Colburn, the National Stewardship Director of American Whitewater. "What these new studies tell us is that our region's economic health depends on safeguarding these amazing public resources for the long-term, while ensuring their sustainable enjoyment by residents and visitors alike. As federal officials work to complete their management plan for the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests, we need to make sure outdoor recreation remains a key priority."

The studies' authors found that paddlers, climbers, and mountain bikers who visit the Nantahala-Pisgah's rivers, peaks, and trails generate more than $83 million in economic impact annually. But even this is only part of the story. The researchers also identified nearly $32 million in annual spending by local residents on human-powered outdoor recreation in the two national forests. This combined economic activity helps support more than 1,000 full-time jobs - yielding almost $14 million in annual income - above and beyond visitor and resident spending. It also makes Western North Carolina a magnet for outdoor gear manufacturing companies, 27 of whom call the region home.

"The Pisgah-Nantahala has welcomed mountain bikers for over 25 years and in that time, the U.S. Forest Service has developed a close partnership with IMBA and SORBA volunteers to create one of the most attractive and extensive mountain biking destinations in the country. The report shows how the region is benefiting from these efforts,” said Tom Sauret, Executive Director of Southern Off-Road Bicycling Association and Southeast Regional Director of International Mountain Bicycling Association.

“These studies show that the outdoor recreation opportunities provided by the Nantahala-Pisgah are a truly precious resource — one that needs and deserves protection and sustainable stewardship,” said Zachary Lesch-Huie, Southeast Regional Director / Affiliate Director of Access Fund. “The Forest Service’s upcoming plan should safeguard and promote the value of outdoor recreation by ensuring these public land gems will continue to offer world-class paddling, climbing, hiking, and biking for generations to come.”


The studies, led by Dr. James Maples and Dr. Michael Bradley of EKU, focus on outdoor recreation as it applies to the NPNF in three broad categories – rock climbing, paddling and mountain biking.

  • The researchers found that of three climbing regions surveyed, rock climbers spend an estimated $13.9 million per year in and around NPNF, and that rock climber tourism supports the presence of 170 full-time jobs and $4 million in job income. They also determined that Western North Carolina residents spend an additional $12.9 million per year as a result of climbing in the NPNF.

  • With regard to mountain biking, the studies found that mountain bikers visit the NPNF an estimated 435,000 times per year, spending around $30.2 million per year in and around the NPNF. Mountain biker tourism supports some 366 full-time jobs and $9 million in job income, while Western North Carolina residents spend an additional $18 million as a result of mountain biking in the NPNF.

  • And when it comes to paddling, the studies concluded that visiting non-commercial paddlers spend an estimated $3.2 million across seven rivers, while commercial paddlers account for an estimated $36 million annually across three rivers. They found that non-commercial paddling tourism supports 35 full-time jobs and $827,000 in job income whereas commercial paddling supports over 400 full-time jobs and $10 million in job income.

Readers, stay tuned: you’ll have a chance to take action in the coming months when the Forest Service opens the public comment period.