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Wednesday, 02 May 2007 00:00

Unique bog protected

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Botanists are cheering the recent acquisition of a 38-acre tract that’s home to a mountain bog near Cashiers thanks to a grant from the state Natural Heritage Trust Fund.

 

“It’s an unusual habitat type in this part of the world. A lot of them have been destroyed, drained or otherwise ravaged,” Dr. Gary Wein, executive director of Highlands Cashiers Land Trust, said of bogs.

Bogs are home to all sorts of strange plants, in particular carnivorous plants. Dr. James Costa, a botanist at Western Carolina University and director of the Highlands Biological Research Station, explained why.

The stagnate water of bogs becomes colonized with sphagnum mosses, which create a build-up of acidic decaying matter. The acidic environment is low in nitrogen, which plants need. Only specialized plants can habitate the bogs, including the carnivorous ones that get their nitrogen from insects instead of the soil.

A true bog is typically found in depressions left by glaciers. There is no water flowing in or out, but the depression is permanently soggy from rain and shallow ground water. Glaciers didn’t make it to the Southern Appalachians, however. Here, bogs aren’t a self-contained bowl but instead have a slight trickle running through to keep them moist, leaving a bit of debate about the bog terminology, Costa said.

“Our bogs strictly speaking are not truly bogs in that you do have some input and output of water, but the water is sufficiently stagnate,” Costa said.

Sufficiently stagnate so that build-up of sphagnum moss still occurs and creates the acidic environment, attracting the carnivorous plants. Costa says the preserved bog outside Cashiers — known as the Dulany Bog — is home to pitcher plant, a mountain version of the Venus fly trap.

“It is exciting to acquire this tract. I think it will help maintain the ecological integrity of that bog,” Costa said.

The future of the bog could still be uncertain, however, despite the acquisition of the property. Costa said there is concern that the bog could be drying up. The hydrology of the bog was altered decades ago by the construction of N.C. 107.

“There has been concern the altered hydrology could lead to the bog drying up,” Costa said.

There are signs of that happening now. Alders, a shrub that can grow into thick tangles, have taken root in the bog.

“There has been a lot of discussion over whether it is something we should do something about,” Costa said.

Costa said he would like to do an experiment by removing the alders from part of the bog and seeing how it responds. Part of the bog lies on land that was already protected, namely national forest land and land owned by the Highlands Biological Foundation. If the remaining portion had been bought up by a private developer instead of conserved, it almost certainly would have spelled the death of the bog, Costa said.

“If you alter the area hydrology, you could pull the rug out from under those species by leading to a drying,” Costa said.

The just-preserved portion of the bog will be managed as a state plant conservation preserve through the N.C. Plant Conservation Program. Rob Evans, a botanist with the program, is interested in more than just the bog species, however. Part of the tract is home to a state endangered plant called Fraser’s Loosestrife, located not in the bog area but along the side of the road of all places.

Evans described loosestrife as a plant with “big problems.” It exists only in the mountains and is disappearing rapidly.

“People don’t really realize what’s going on with this,” Evans said. “We believe it is extinct in two other states where it used to occur. There are so few populations left in so few areas that we consider every population that is left to be a priority for conservation.”

The plant is found in open areas rather than dense forest canopy. Evans said these open habitats are not as plentiful anymore. Evans theory is that fire played a role historically in creating open habitats. Evans wants to burn part of the Dulany Bog site to see if it helps the loosestrife. It could also get rid of the alder growing up in the bog, Evans said. Evans said pitcher plants are also known to benefit from fire.

There is some debate whether fire is a historical part of the Southern Appalachian ecosystem, especially on the Cashiers Plateau, which qualifies as a temperate rain forest with its 100 inches of rain a year.

“If we find other experts who say ‘you are crazy, you are going to destroy everything,’ we might back off,” Evan said. But as of now, he hopes to give it a try.

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