It’s a crisp fall afternoon in the depths of Pisgah National Forest, another day of endless sunshine and outdoor possibility in the vast mountains of Western North Carolina. Sitting at a table on the back patio of the Cradle of Forestry, Devin Gentry scans the bright and robust foliage surrounding the large building.
“I think about it everyday,” Gentry said. “I live nearby in Brevard and I drive up to work in Pisgah. I think about the fact it was just a few people making a few decisions way back then that affected the entire country.”
Gentry is the director of operations at the Cradle of Forestry, a 6,500-acre heritage site and interpretive center right off U.S. 276 between Waynesville and Brevard. That puts him at the forefront of a storied and vital history that continues to ripple into the waters of change today.
“The Cradle celebrates the beginning of forestry and forest conservation in America,” he said. “And by learning about this history here—either through school groups, special events, or visitors—we’re becoming more educated and inspired to leave the world in a better place than when we found it.”
The Cradle of Forestry represents the birth of the conservation movement in the United States, which began right here in WNC. In 1898, Dr. Carl A. Schenck started the Biltmore Forest School, which was located near the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. At the time, George Vanderbilt brought Schenck to America from Germany to manage the enormous forest surrounding his estate, and to also have Schenck teach his forestry techniques to others.
In the early 20th century, George’s wife, Edith, decided they would sell their 85,000-acre forest to the U.S. government. Though George had already entered into a private logging contract with the property, the sale to the government still went through. The land would be preserved and restored for future generations, all while providing the much-needed natural resources to the general public for consumption.
“This place showcases the beginning of forestry when science was applied to managing a forest.” —Devin Gentry, Cradle of Forestry director of operations
“Just like it did then, today we’re still inspiring the next generation of forest stewards. We’re giving people the historical context of what could have been, in terms of clear cutting without regard for the future,” Gentry said. “This place was about making sure we’d have natural resources for the future, and it showcases the beginning of forestry, when science was applied to managing a forest.”
From that initial 85,000 acres, the Pisgah National Forest now encompasses more than 512,000 acres. The national forest celebrated its 100th anniversary in October 2016. A century later, Pisgah remains a beacon of conservation and smart growth, a concept that spread throughout the decades—across the nation and around the world.
And although it took many years before the environmental movement went mainstream in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the foundation for that shift in public opinion was planted in WNC. In 1968, the Cradle of Forestry opened, with the Interpretive Association coming online four years later. With more than 40,000 visitors between April and November 2016, the center plans to increase those numbers exponentially in the coming years.
“In the early 1970s, you had the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, and also the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),” Gentry said. “There was this awareness going on about environmental activism. Science was also catching up with the need for resources. At that time, the Forest Service and the logging industry really wanted to show that what they were doing could be sustainable. They wanted to show Americans that though we are dependent on these natural resources, there were ways to go about it to make sure the needs of the people and the forest were both met.”
Strolling the numerous trails within the heritage site, there are several buildings and items that have been relocated to the property: Schenck’s German-style backwoods cabin, a general store, logging train, trout hatchery, and more. There’s also the original one-room schoolhouse where Schenck spent years teaching the many students who came to him with a pioneering spirit for preservation that reverberates through these ancient mountains.
“If you’re visiting anywhere in Pisgah or the Biltmore Estate, or Looking Glass Falls and Sliding Rock, this place ties so many things together,” Gentry said. “The Cradle gives you a better appreciation when you climb that mountain, sit underneath that waterfall, or cruise the Blue Ridge Parkway. You realize what this place looked like a century ago—that sense of importance, greatness, and natural beauty is still here.”
NATIONAL FORESTS OF NORTH CAROLINA HISTORIC PHOTOGRAPHS, D.H. RAMSEY LIBRARY, SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AT ASHEVILLE.