During the early 20th century, forested mountain lands in the southeast were extensively grazed, cleared and planted with corn, and logged. Erosion on worn out and abandoned lands was a region-wide concern, and the rank and file of professional foresters knew little about forest effects on climate and soil. With the goal of using research to improve understanding of the influences of forests on water yield, the Appalachian Station (now called the Southern Research Station) hired Charles R. Hursh in 1926 to direct the Station's Division of Forest Influences. Some of his earliest work dealt with erosion control and methods for stabilizing soil on road-banks and abandoned agricultural land. These early studies led to an examination of water movement through the soil profile and the recognized need for continuous measurements of stream flow and precipitation.
Charles Hursh sought a suitable area for complete watershed instrumentation for continuous measurements of stream flow and precipitation so as to conduct comprehensive watershed management studies. He selected the Coweeta drainage basin on the Nantahala National Forest near Franklin, NC, for this purpose. Three thousand nine hundred acres (later increased to 5,750 acres) were set aside in 1933 as the Coweeta Experimental Forest. The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Public Works Administration provided the manpower and funds for a major weir construction program that began in 1934. Combined with a network of 56 standard rain gages, numerous ground-water wells, and meteorological stations the stage was set for a comprehensive watershed management research program. After a period of standardizing the gaged watersheds, the first treatments and experiments were initiated in 1939.
Since then, scientists have conducted a variety of watershed experiments at Coweeta. The early emphasis on how land management practices affect the hydrologic cycle has evolved into a broader interdisciplinary effort that couples hydrology to its ecosystem context. The first 50 years of research at Coweeta were synthesized at a 1984 Symposium at the University of Georgia later published as a book, "Forest Hydrology and Ecology at Coweeta."
The Coweeta LTER Research Program was established in 1980. Since then, the project has evolved from a site-based project centered on the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory to a site and region-based project that integrates ecological and socioeconomic components across 60,000 km2 of the southern Appalachian Mountains. The project nevertheless continues to build on the need recognized by Charles Hursh for using research to help unravel the impact humans have on varied environmental conditions in order to provide solid science to guide future land use planning.