Marci Spencer – Author and Historian

Healer of bodies and forests


A retired nurse practitioner, Marci Spencer is the author of Clingmans Dome: Highest Mountain in the Great Smokies, Pisgah National Forest: A History, and the recently released Nantahala National Forest: A History all published by The History Press. Her children’s book, Potluck, Message Delivered: The Great Smoky Mountains Are Saved!, was published by Grateful Steps. The Yosemite Conservancy included Marci’s essay “Pine Siskins Make History” in its book, The Wonder of It All: 100 Stories from the National Park Service, published to celebrate the centennial of the national park system in 2016.

If you are an outdoors lover who spends time in the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, chances are you have probably encountered Marci in person, or through her works. She volunteered for the National Park Service in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, stationed at Clingmans Dome. She has earned naturalist certification in the Blue Ridge, Great Smoky Mountains Institute and the NC Environmental Educators programs. Marci has offered natural education presentations at community events, school programs and science fairs and taught a class on the Spruce-fir forest ecosystem at the NC Arboretum. She has also volunteered as a public educator in black bear natural history for Appalachian Bear Rescue. As you can see, quite active in the outdoors community.

Recently, Meanderthals spoke with Marci about how her background prepared her for what she is doing these days, the importance of volunteerism in sustaining public lands in the future, and about lessons learned during her research into the history of the forests and parks of the region that we all know and love.


Marci Spencer Interview


[Meanderthals] Thank you very much Marci, and welcome. Let’s get started:

I learned of your dedication through your books about the history of the national forests in western North Carolina. For the readers who may not be aware, tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your love for the outdoors.

[Marci Spencer] My restless sense of wonder and insatiable desire to explore human and natural history was inherited from my father and his deep southern roots. When we weren’t exploring regional lakes by canoe or water skis, we hiked trails and old railroad beds in Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests. While I was recovering from knee surgeries, we drove WNC roadways with Carolyn Sakowski’s book Touring  the Western North Carolina Backroads in our lap, devouring the local history.

After earning a nursing degree and later a master’s degree of science, I worked as a nurse practitioner in the fields of family practice, cardiology and emergency medicine and as an overseas medical missionary in India, Zimbabwe and Jamaica.

On my days off, when I wasn’t piloting and exploring the region by private airplane, I helped form a hiking group of cardiac nurses. We hiked many of Pisgah’s trails, hiked half of the Appalachian Trail as section-hikers, volunteered for PNF to help maintain backcountry campsites, and volunteered with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, re-introducing endangered peregrine falcons back into Pisgah’s high country. 

When my husband became disabled after a massive stroke, forcing him to retire from medicine, I left my career to be his caregiver. To remain active in the natural world, I turned to volunteering.

Retired from medicine, my overactive mind searched for a new direction. I turned my mental energies into something constructive. I found my decades of stored journals, notes and documents of the region’s human and natural history. I began reading, taking classes, and asking hundreds of questions that led to research farther afield.

Physically restricted post-stroke but mentally sharp, my husband joined me in my journeys, interviews and search for new tales or forgotten old ones. It was an enriching activity that we could share to keep our minds active on our new life’s journey.

As we explored western North Carolina museums, libraries, archives, backroads, territories and homes, we gathered the information I needed to write my regional histories and met a forest-full of wonderful personalities that we would never have met. I believe that the genuine, down-to-earth personalities we met who have formed a strong sense of pride in their regional roots have left a much deeper, lasting impression on me than my words in a book have given them. 


[Meanderthals] What have George Vanderbilt, his family, and his legacy meant to Asheville and western North Carolina in general? If you could, what would you want to ask him?


[Marci Spencer] Someone once told me, “Marci, I’ve never known anyone to ask as many questions as you do!” I wish I could have posed my endless questions in an interview with George Vanderbilt. I would have gotten direct response from him about his goals and plans, his disappointments and regrets, and his explorations and experiences in Pisgah Forest.

Although some descendants of landowners who sold Vanderbilt their property 100 years ago remain bitter, local economies and tourism have benefitted greatly by the presence of the Biltmore House and Estate. By hiring Gifford Pinchot, who later became the first chief of the new forest service, Vanderbilt and his foresters initiated the nation’s first scientific forestry plan on the estate.

Later, Vanderbilt hired the German forester, Carl Schenck, to manage his forests. In Pisgah Forest, Schenck started the first forestry school in the US, now preserved as the Cradle of Forestry. After Vanderbilt died in 1914, his widow sold 80,000 acres of his Pisgah Forest to the federal government. The USFS joined that tract of land with 8,000 acres purchased in 1912 in the Curtis Creek area to form Pisgah National Forest, the first national forest in the East created under the Weeks Act, which allowed the USFS to buy land for protection.

May I pose 3 questions here that I would have asked George Vanderbilt?

1) “What can you tell me about the personality of Senator Thomas L. Clingman and the conversations that you and your agents had with him, during your negotiations to purchase his Mount Pisgah?”

2) “Where did Dr. Schenck build the wooden ladder up the side of Looking Glass Rock for you to take your guests to the summit?” Several of today’s local rock climbers have scoured the sheer rock cliffs of Looking Glass looking for signs of its previous location. According to Bill Alexander, little information has been located in the Biltmore Estate Archives about the ladder seen in photos taken by Dr. Schenck in a Vanderbilt camping expedition in 1902.

3) “Did you ever meet my great-grandfather, Martin Luther Lance?” one of the few proud property owners who refused to sell his land to George Vanderbilt. Until his dying day, Mr. Lance kept an early 1900s Asheville newspaper clipping in his wallet, vowing to himself never to sell. That wallet and clipping is in a display case in my library.


[Meanderthals] The US Forest Service in North Carolina has been working on the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests Plan Revision for a few years now. It should be nearing completion within the coming year. In your view, what are the major issues of concern for the next 20 years, and who are the major stakeholders going forward?


[Marci Spencer] I have attended a number of the public input meetings conducted over the past few years during the preparation stages for the revision of the PNF/NNF Comprehensive Management Plan.The greatest challenge, I believe, is providing the needs of a diverse recreational crowd of forest users while protecting the natural beauty and resources that attract us there.

Mountain bike riders, equestrians, hikers, runners, ATV users, fishermen, hunters, naturalists, scientists, historians, conservationists and others all share the forests maintained by the USFS as a sustainable source for timber production, while wildlife, both transient and permanent, common and endangered, thrive within shrinking habitats.

Who are the major stakeholders going forward, you ask? Sometimes, it seems like the “stakeholders” are those with the most money, the loudest voice or the largest following. Perhaps, those with the greatest concerns for the future of our forests should be those who need us to speak for them those creatures and plants whose lives depend on the forested freedom within an ecosystem of clean water, air and space to survive.


If we don’t speak up for them, who will?


[Meanderthals] When you were conducting research for your history books, what are a few of the more interesting things you learned?


[Marci Spencer] I think that what I learned during my research for the Clingmans Dome, Pisgah National Forest and Nantahala National Forest books that has remained with me the most is that there are many quiet, unsung heroes who have independently worked to preserve the history of the region’s forests. Many unrecognized, small-town heroes have spent years protecting our natural resources.

A World War II veteran joined the USFS after Germans blew up his tank. He hiked to his post at the fire tower on the top of Table Rock Mountain on a wooden leg. When U. S. Marines, practicing military maneuvers in Linville Gorge, learned that a disabled U.S. Vet was working on Table Rock as a fire warden, the men cut a seasons-worth of firewood and carried it load-by-load to the summit for him.

Lloyd Allen learned that the USFS planned to tear down the Little Snowball Fire Tower; so, he paid $300 for it, took it apart and stored it at his house for 25 yrs. until he could find a home for it now it is restored at the Big Ivy Community, the site of the CCC encampment of the boys who built it.

The librarian in Old Fort created a large display for the library’s reading room of reprinted enlargements of her dad’s work with the CCC at Curtis Creek. A school nurse in Hayesville created a bicycle course for an after school program that has become one of the most popular bicycle trail networks in NNF. Many others devoted to the regions forests and its history have made valuable contributions.


[Meanderthals] Do you have a favorite go to place for some Marci time?


[Marci Spencer] When I need to reconnect, emotionally and physically, to my natural world, I explore places I’ve never been or I search out a trail that I hiked thirty years ago and experience it during a different season or with more mature, experienced and informed thoughts and senses. Here in western North Carolina, we have enough scenic beauties and wilderness wonders to explore and renew our spirits to last a lifetime!


Ever the adventurer, Marci paddles the Tuckaeegee River.


[Meanderthals] Particularly in Western North Carolina, what are the conservation and preservation matters still needing the most attention?


[Marci Spencer] I suppose I addressed this question somewhat when I talked about the PNF/NNF revision plan. Headwaters of streams and the clear, cool waters of mountain waterways; rare and endangered ecosystems and the special species that inhabit them; old-growth forests; historic cultural areas, such as the Cherokee historic village sites, ancient mounds and the Trail of Tears in Nantahala National Forest are some of the conservation and preservation issues of paramount concern in WNC that instantly come to my mind.


[Meanderthals] Volunteers in the outdoors community are extremely important for the health and survival of our national parks and forests. Where do you see the greatest remaining needs? What are some good opportunities for volunteers?


[Marci Spencer] With federal budget cuts and reduced labor force, volunteers with community organizations, hiking groups and organized clubs work with federal agencies to assist with valuable maintenance and restoration projects for many of the treasured areas in our national forests, as well as Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The volunteer needs are ongoing and require a continued follow-up commitment, whether it’s removing non-native, exotic species that squeeze out less-tolerant native ones; repairing deteriorating visitor walkways and overlooks; clearing a trail of downfall from a recent storm; rebuilding an eroded trail with water bars and runoff channels; erecting new signs; removing graffiti and damage from vandalism; picking up litter and dozens of other projects.

Hardy souls can volunteer with wilderness crews, hiking and biking clubs and retired USFS staff who maintain trails with saws, weed cutters and other tools. Others may choose to volunteer with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission which manages the wildlife that inhabit the forests transport red spruce seedlings to replant trees to help restore the forest needs of the endangered Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel; or, monitor the bat populations or the peregrine falcon nesting sites.

Consider volunteering for annual trash clean up campaigns at Wilson Creek, the Cherohala Skyway and other areas. Perhaps, you don’t have the time or means to physically participate in such activities. Consider donating money to the Pisgah Conservancy, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Foothills Conservancy, Mainspring Conservation Trust, Conservation Trust for North Carolina, Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains, Conserving Carolina and others who work to protect our natural resources.


[Meanderthals] What do you believe we can do to get young people more involved in the outdoors community to enable a continuing legacy of conservation and protection?


[Marci Spencer] I am a huge proponent of educating our younger generation about the natural world. Outdoor education not only fosters a lifelong, healthy respect and love for the natural environment where one can find personal peace and enrichment, but it also encourages the younger generation to become aware of what nature needs to protect it for years to come.

Western North Carolina has had a long history of providing a large number of summer day and weeklong camps for young people that immerse their participants in nature study and outdoor activities. Places like the NC Arboretum, Lees-McRae College, Tri-County Community College, Southern Appalachian Research, Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education, Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, Outward Bound, Nantahala Outdoor Center, several privately owned camps and others offer the next generation opportunities to build an outdoor-living foundation and foster a lasting relationship with our natural resources.


[Meanderthals] A few years ago you wrote a book about Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For those who may not know, what happened to the trees?


[Marci Spencer] Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Clingmans Dome receive visitors each year from around the world. One summer, while I was volunteering there for the National Park Service, two exhausted Jamaican visitors stopped and puffed beside a huge rock next to the steep one-half mile Clingmans Dome trail. “Why did they have to put the tower way up there?” they asked.

NPS volunteers stationed at Clingmans Dome answer a wide variety of numerous questions, mostly about the black bears. But, I bet the number one question asked is: “What happened to the trees?” {I know. 🙂 That’s why I asked.}

In the early 1900s, a nonnative insect pest, the balsam woolly adelgid (BWA), migrated to North America on imported fir trees. By 1983, the aliens had migrated south along the Appalachian Mountains, leaving a wake of fir forest death and destruction, before arriving to forage in the rich green foliage of mature Fraser firs on Clingmans Dome.

Aggressive adelgids pierced the fir’s bark with their feeding tubes to suck up food from the tree’s sap, interrupting the tree’s vital food and nutrient transport channels, starving the trees to death. In some areas of the southern Appalachians affected by the adelgids, predator beetles have been released to help combat the invaders.

In the Smokies, park officials have tried applications of an organic, biodegradable soap. Today, scientists continue plot impact studies to help predict the future for Clingmans Dome’s Frazer firs {and hemlocks as well}. Scientists have noted fir seedling regeneration. Fewer adelgid population numbers and fewer females laying eggs are promising data findings. Park officials have preserved a gene pool of quality Fraser firs unaffected by the balsam wooly adelgid in a protected nursery for further scientific study and the potential regeneration of fir forests once the BWA is controlled.


Scattered amongst the healthy evergreens below Clingmans Dome are the grey ghosts of the fir and hemlock.


[Meanderthals] What’s next for Marci? Do you have any new projects bouncing around in your head?


[Marci Spencer] When I pushed the big “send” button to submit the final draft of the manuscript for the book on the history of Nantahala National Forest several months ago, retired NNF District Ranger Lewis Kearney, who had been a major resource and supporter of the Nantahala project, sent me an email. His note simply said, “see the attachment for ideas for your next project.” The attachment was a list of the other 153 national forests in this country.

My heart and mind have already started to ask questions about Chattahoochee, Cherokee and Sumter National Forests. I’ve mentally wondered about the red-cockaded woodpecker populations in Francis Marion and the hurricane damage to that forest. I’ve thought about the Croatan of North Carolina and its Native American history.

I have a children’s book manuscript based on a true story of a black bear rescue that was well received at a conference in Pennsylvania.

But, since I pushed the magic “send” button, I’ve been answering the call to venture outside, not for research, writing or study, but just for the pure fun of it. My list of places to explore or return is long, and right now I’m soaking in everything that my soul can absorb.


[Meanderthals] Thanks so much Marci. I’m sure those who read Meanderthals appreciate the thought provoking responses to my questions. Speaking of questions, for those of you reading this, should you have any questions for Marci, simply leave them in the comments below and I will forward to her.

I can’t recommend Marci’s books enough. Copies are available for purchase through her publisher, The History Press, or on Amazon.


This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.


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