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Explore Nantahala National Forest Using New App

Story from Karen Chavez, Asheville Citizen-Times.

Looking for a little zip to the average ho-hum hiking guide?

The U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station has just unveiled a web app that will take you on a ride as you plan your next hiking, mountain biking or horseback riding trip in Nantahala National Forest.

The Forest Trail Explorer is a searchable app, designed for iPhones and Androids, that combines details on three popular trail systems in the Nantahala — the westernmost of the state’s four national forests — with the latest on-the-ground forest science and virtual fly-overs.

Forest explorers can find trail information, including directions, trail type, distance and difficulty, and elevation, in addition to background and history of the trails. The app also uses information from the Forest Inventory and Analysis to provide details on topics ranging from ecosystem and threats to forest products, to weather and climate.

Perhaps the coolest feature of the app — one you won’t find in a paperback — is the virtual fly-overs using Google Earth technology. The aerial views of the trails give a perspective of the magnitude of the forests, the elevations and some of the nearby features such as lakes, rivers and other trails, not always visible while on foot deep within the forest.

The project was a collaboration over the past two years between content provided by the Southern Research Station and the Forest Service, with technology provided by the National Environmental Modeling Analysis Center at UNC Asheville, said Jennifer Plyler, of the SRS.

She said the project cost $60,000, which included costs for six analysis center staff members.

“The Southern Research Station wanted to collaborate with the U.S. Forest Service, and we wanted to use the information from the Forest Inventory and Analysis,” she said. “The FIA is essentially a forest census. It helps us see changes in the forest over time. We wanted to highlight this information to anyone interested in learning more about forest natural resources.”

The nationwide Forest Inventory and Analysis collects data on trends in forest area and location, tree species, size and health, mortality, removals by harvest, wood production and utilization rates, forest land ownership and more. It projects how forests are likely to appear in the next 50 years and helps forest managers evaluate sustainability practices.

“This site uses today’s technology to benefit visitors and communities, and it could serve as a model for other national forests interested in using FIA data to inform and enhance the user’s outdoor experience,” SRS director Rob Doudrick said.

Morgan Sommerville, regional director with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Asheville, was one of the first users to check out a prototype of the Forest Trail Explorer web app. He said the SRS worked out some kinks, and the new version is more user-friendly.

“The nice thing is that it highlights various portions of trail systems, for example the Jackrabbit, and shows where it is in context with other trails in the system, how long they are, gives a profile and brief explanation,” Sommerville said.

“The Appalachian Trail offers challenges because it’s so long. I’d love to see them add more sections as time goes on. The fly-over portion of the AT was very interesting. The specific information they provide is very useful, and I’m sure it will entice more people to get out on trails.”

That enticement to the region was one of the driving forces behind the creation of Forest Trail Explorer, Plyler said.

“We wanted to emphasize and help market Western North Carolina for tourists. For folks who love the outdoors, Asheville is a vacation destination around the U.S., the natural resources we have in the national forests, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and even the Biltmore Estate,” she said.

“We’re trying to emphasize the context, the natural resource issues. That’s what makes this app unique. We wanted to develop the app to market WNC’s national forests, to bring in tourists and for economic development.”

Together, Pisgah and Nantahala national forests contain more than 1 million acres of land in WNC and, according to information in the web app, receive more than 6 million annual visitors.

The Browse Trails section of the app details trails in the Tsali Recreation Area, within the Cheoah Ranger District, and the Jackrabbit Recreation Area in the Tusquitee Ranger District, as well as two large sections of the Appalachian Trail that pass through Nantahala National Forest. The trails are all in the remote sections of Clay, Graham and Swain counties, which was done on purpose, Plyler said, to help shine a light on the region.

According to the N.C. Commerce Department, Graham has the highest unemployment rate in WNC, at 10.6 percent. Swain has the next highest rate with 8.5 percent unemployment.

Information included in the Learn About Nature section is taken from the Western North Carolina Vitality Index (www.wncvitalityindex.org), which reports on the unique aspects of the region’s natural and socioeconomic environment. The report analyzes forest characteristics on private and public land.

The Forest Trail Explorer offers safety tips and connects visitors to safety alerts issued by the Forest Service, as well as camping information and even some local lore.

For example, the Tsali Recreation Area trails section, describes “Tsali” as being named after a Cherokee Indian who lived in the area near Fontana Lake during the early 1800s and was captured by the U.S. Army during the Cherokee Removal in 1838. Tsali escaped, but the rest of the story is not so cheerful.

Plyler said the Southern Research Station plans to add more trails to the app as funding and new partnerships allow. She stresses that this is a planning tool and should not be thought of as a safety net.

“You can download it to your smartphone and pull up information if you have a signal,” she said.

“But we caution folks not to use this as a safety backup. That’s not the purpose. Visitors should always carry a map and compass when in a national forest.”

For more information on the Forest Trail Explorer, a collaboration of the Southern Research Station, the U.S. Forest Service and the UNC Asheville National Environmental Modeling Analysis Center, visit www.nctrails.org.