The Jefferson National Forest comprises 715,000 acres of mountainous forestland in southwestern Virginia and adjacent West Virginia and Kentucky. It is part of the Southern Appalachian ecosystem, which contains millions of acres of federal public land stretching from Virginia to Alabama. It is the largest concentration of public lands in the eastern United States. In addition to the national forests, the ecosystem includes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Shenandoah National Park.
The Southern Appalachians are ancient mountains that harbor an incredible diversity of plant and animal life. With elevations rising to 6,684 feet at Mount Mitchell, these rugged mountains are cloaked with more than 2,000 kinds of plants, including 130 species of trees. Animals are equally diverse. These forests are home to nearly 150 species of nesting birds and more than 50 kinds of salamanders. Many of the plants, wildlife, and fish of this region are found nowhere else on Earth.
These biologically rich mountains, where rainfall exceeds 90 inches a year in some places, have an abundance of ferns and wildflowers. Southern Appalachian waterways are high in diversity, providing habitat for 190 aquatic species that are endangered, threatened, or of special concern. Native brook trout still can be found in many of the cold-water streams, and the peregrine falcon and river otter were recently reintroduced in the region. These lands also display unusual ecological communities, such as beech gaps and mountain balds, which further add to the variety of native species.
According to Sustaining Biodiversity in the Southern Appalachians (Boone and Aplet, 1994), the national forests and parks of the Southern Appalachians are home to more than 80 percent of the vertebrates and plants native to the region. They support 61 globally rare vertebrates, 18 of which are listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as endangered or threatened, and 149 globally rare plants, 22 of which are federally listed.
The Southern Appalachian Assessment (SAA) found that large tracts of forest and associated forest interior habitats will continue to decrease due to development and other land uses. The SAA concludes that "priority should be given to maintaining existing larger tracts that have the potential to support the species associated with mid- and late-successional forests. Currently, national forests and national parks contain the largest portion of these large tracts, and most likely will continue to provide the core habitat for source populations of deciduous forest species."
The Southern Appalachian region has long been one of the major tourist destinations in the United States. In 1995, there were more than 100 million outdoor-recreation-based trips in the Southern Appalachians, with more than 80 percent of those visits made by people from outside the region. The value of recreation-based tourism is nearly $6 billion per year, with an annual employment of more than 100,000 people.
Wilderness, fishing, hunting, wildlife viewing, and nature study activities contribute significant numbers of jobs and income to the region. The SAA estimates that 30,602 jobs are directly related to recreation on federal land. This is almost a third of the annual employment from recreation-based tourism. The number of employees doubled between 1977 and 1991.