Some of the scientists helping to identify every living species in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are giving up rights to name their discoveries for an even bigger prize: raising money to ensure the continued survival of the Discover Life in America project.
The All Taxa Biological Inventory started 12 years ago as an attempt to document each of the estimated 60,000 species in the Smokies, a place long considered — and now proven to be — a biological hotspot. To date, 7,100 species not previously known to dwell in the park have been identified. Of those, 910 are completely new species, never before identified.
The cost to name one of Discover Life in America’s newly identified creatures cost buyers $2,500 to $10,000. In return, donors get a print photograph of their named organism, plus a copy of the scientific publication in which the species is first described.
For those donors not wanting to shell out the big bucks, something small — such as a newly discovered mite — often proves the winning ticket. Mites simply don’t have the cachet larger species have — a certain je ne sais quoi, as it were, that the public attaches to butterflies, salamanders and similar lovelies.
The selling-the-naming-rights effort has been under way for three or four years. Discover Life in America has successfully sold just about that many — three or four to date, said Todd Witcher, executive director of the group.
Because of the secrecy surrounding the scientific process, and the length of time it takes for the scientific community to approve a discovery, no information about who has bought what has ever been made public.
There’s another reason for that, too: a bit of potential stigma exists for the scientists involved — not everyone in the scientific community approves of this fairly new, but increasingly utilized, fundraising method. Critics worry that with commercial value being attached to finds, people will “discover” new species solely for financial gains.
When it comes to the naming game, the Discover Life in America’s fundraising effort is frankly small potatoes. An auction to name 10 species of fish netted Conservation International $2 million in 2007. And, in 2005, the Wildlife Conservation Society raised $650,000 in an Internet auction of a Bolivian monkey.
“It is certainly a sign of the times,” said Witcher, adding the Discover Life in America, with an annual budget of $250,000, struggles to stay afloat financially.
The nonprofit doesn’t just cover administrative costs, staff salaries and such. The group actually extends grants to scientists to encourage study of certain taxa in the Smokies. Witcher said the competition is fierce to acquire the services, say, of one of just two scientists in the world with the ability to identify a particularly obscure species.
How many folks have you ever met have expertise in slime molds, for instance? A small grant sometimes helps persuade a scientist with sought-after taxonomy skills to work in the Smokies.
Why does it matter if we know about slime molds? There’s the sexy answer, that the cure for cancer might well lie in an undiscovered species, perhaps here in the Smokies. Less alluring, but also important, is the need for baseline data: you can’t know what’s being lost if you don’t first know what’s there.
One of the many difficulties, as Witcher alluded to, is the relatively small number of scientists with the credentials and the ability to take on the work — that is, of identifying species in the field. This also worries New Discover Life in America board member Laura Mahan, who with her husband, Hal, operates The Compleat Naturalist, a natural history store in Asheville.
A trained biologist, Laura Mahan has an intense interest in science education. She said that’s one of the most fantastic parts of Discover Life in America — the pairing of nonscientists with scientists to actually conduct real science together.
And, hopefully, this will help lead to more interest among people in learning how to identify various species.
This past Friday (April 15) I attended the dedication ceremony for the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee. I wouldn’t normally enjoy a program made up of eight or so speeches, but as this one proceeded I found myself smiling.
I was pleased that the North Carolina side of GSMNP finally has a real visitor center. I was pleased that the directors, board members, and general membership of the Great Smoky Mountains Association and Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park received due recognition in regard to raising private funding that totaled $3 million. And I was pleased that it was such a nice friendly-looking building — the sort of public facility you’d enjoy visiting with your mother or your children or by yourself.
I tried after the dedication to tour the exhibit area. But I couldn’t get into it ... too many people I knew … too many distractions. So I left and came back Sunday afternoon. I don’t know anything about the nitty-gritty of designing buildings or planning exhibits. I do love museums of almost any sort, ranging from the grand old Smithsonian in the nation’s capital to the delightful county museum housed in a basement in Murphy. I’ve probably been through the nearby Museum of the Cherokee Indian at least 20 times, with groups or on my own. Here then are some random impressions of the new OVC.
Many traditional museum exhibits are driven by printed sources; that is, the designers read the significant books about a given event or place and use that information to present (in enclosed wall or glass-topped table displays) a chronological account based on — and quoting extensively from — those sources.
The new OVC exhibits are refreshingly free of that semi-academic approach. The only authors allowed even a sentence or two are Francis Asbury, Horace Kephart, Paul Fink and John Parris. (James Mooney, author of the monumental Myths of the Cherokees published in 1900, probably did deserve a word.) Instead, the new OVC exhibit is thematic — depicting via “Mountain Voices” how lands within and related to the park have been used through time by various peoples in various ways — as they sought to establish homelands suitable to their needs. As such, it necessarily tells the story of the ongoing relationship between the Cherokees, the white settlers, and their respective descendents.
Displays are devoted to Cherokee lore, Trail of Tears, Civil War, logging, moonshine, household and farm implements, family relationships, trails and roads, mills, CCC camps, natural history and more. The sounds of voices and music are literally in the air, not as white noise but as an integral part of the presentation. It is, in fact, more of an active “presentation” than static “display.”
The planners clearly strived for diversity in regard to presentation. Layers of often-interactive information are presented via video, print, artwork, maps, photos and voice recordings. Some exhibits, for instance, are designed as hands-on oversized notebooks, while others roll or spin with illustrated sequences. There are free-standing information boards and several video screens along with traditional enclosed wall displays. I can’t pretend to have absorbed a very high percentage of the overall content. After about an hour of looking my brain was saturated.
The primary exhibit area consists of a round kiosk inside a large room. Foot traffic flows clockwise and counterclockwise around the outside and within the kiosk. There is a chronological component, but the individual visitor isn’t locked into a predetermined route. I liked that aspect. I like to ramble around, and I noticed that not a few of my fellow visitors had chosen to wander with me backwards in time from 2011 AD to circa 1000 AD.
Many reading this will remember the oversized (perhaps 4-by-10 feet) raised relief map of the GSMNP that resided on a table in the old OVC. It looked like it had been constructed with mud overlaid with dull green enamel paint. That monstrosity has been replaced in the new OVC by a terrific raised relief map that depicts the topography of the park and adjacent areas in considerable detail.
Aside from perhaps adding a quote from Mooney, I have one other suggestion. Whenever I conduct natural history workshops for the Smoky Mountain Field School, participants are always curious about where the GSMNP is situated in regard to the Appalachians as a whole. It might be useful if a free-standing information exhibit placed near the new map delineated the geographic location of GSMNP as one of the numerous mountain ranges on the western front of the Southern Blue Ridge Province in the Southern Appalachians.
The only notes I made consist of a list of distinctive first names belonging to various individuals quoted or cited in the exhibit: Pettybone, Runaway, Fonzie, Milas, Dulcie, Aden and others. Runaway’s last name was Swimmer. Did he runaway from home or from being transported to Oklahoma?
As I was leaving the exhibit area, I spotted a quote by someone named Winifred. Bending over for a closer look, I saw that it had been spoken by my now deceased friend Winifred Cagle, who grew up on Toms Branch, a tributary of Deep Creek north of Bryson City within what became GSMNP. When I knew him, Winifred lived just outside the park on East Deep Creek. He was very proud of his old home place in the Smokies. And he was a great supporter, in his quiet manner, of the park.
The quote, which I didn’t have to write down, concerns a special salve his mother made that was so good it would cure leprosy, if need be. “It would, in fact,” Winifred advised me on several occasions when we were visiting his old homesite, “cure most anything but a broken heart.”
Winifred spoke in a high-pitched lyrical voice, almost a stammer, that was memorable. Mark Cathey, the renowned fly fisherman who also grew up on Deep Creek, reportedly spoke the same way. I can hear Winifred now. He would be tickled pink to know his mother’s salve has been memorialized in the new visitor center.
Tom Robbins came out of retirement for two months to help the National Park Center open up the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
“I never thought I’d get a chance to work in the new building,” he said. “This is nice.”
Robbins, a career park employee, spent some 24 years manning the desk at the old visitor center, which was intended as “temporary,” but was in use for decades.
Among the attributes Robbins’ seemed pleased to see in the new building? The visitor center is about as environmentally friendly as it gets. The building is being nationally certified under the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system.
Autumn Rathbun of Trotter and Associates, an architectural firm in Gatlinburg, Tenn., that helped with the design, described some of the eco-friendly features.
“It uses quite a bit of recycled materials and regional materials,” Rathbun said. “There are also waterless urinals and dual-flush toilets.”
The toilets use a rain water-harvesting tank, set into the ground, for flushing, Rathbun explained.
And, that’s not all.
There is geothermal heat and cooling, in that the heat-pump system takes advantage of the constant 55 degrees temperature of the earth. It pumps water into the ground though tubing where it gains or gives off heat, increasing the efficiency of the system.
The building heavily relies on natural daylight, including “really cool solar tubes,” as Rathbun notes. The orientation of the building and the select placement of windows allow plenty of indirect lighting into the building.
Outside, the landscaping uses native plants, which need little watering to thrive.
“In my mind, it is a leap ahead,” said Lynda Doucette, supervisory park ranger for the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. “We wanted something that would complement the landscape.”
Doucette pointed out that part of the new building resembles the barn in the nearby Mountain Farm Museum (a collection of historic log buildings); part resembles the old house in Mountain Farm Museum.
“It does mimic the buildings on the farm,” the ranger said.
To describe the new visitor center on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a long time coming is something of an understatement.
Try some 76 years since plans were first hatched for a museum of this type, where visitors could learn about the cultural history of these mountains and the people who helped shape them. There never seemed to be enough money, and perhaps at times, enough interest, for such a visitor center to be built.
Until now, that is. The new Oconaluftee Visitor Center opened this month at the main entrance to the park just outside Cherokee, one that seems to do justice to the most-visited national park in the country.
“This is much more educational than the old one,” said Brenda Hornbuckle, who lives near Atlanta and was at the visitor center one day last week with her sister, Becky Strickland.
“I love it,” Strickland said, adding the two now plan to make another trip, and soon, so that the sisters’ grandchildren can tour the visitor center.
“This is a lot more updated and a lot bigger,” Strickland said.
And that is true: the old building, pressed into service as a “temporary” visitor center in 1948, will return to its original purpose as an administrative building for park personnel. The new 6,000-square-foot visitor center highlights Cherokee history, early settlers and mountain culture. The visitor center on the Tennessee side focuses on the mountain environment, wildlife and nature.
“There was always the intention of having a visitor center on this side of the park,” said Lynda Doucette, supervisory park ranger in Oconaluftee. “I’m just really tickled we finally have a building.”
And what a building: Built entirely from private funding for $3 million, Oconaluftee Visitor Center is, in a word, “powerful,” as Lisa Bach of Seymour, Tenn., described it. The exterior is wood and stone, very visible from nearby U.S. 441. So much so, some 1,300-1,600 people each day are stopping by — double the 600 to 800 daily visitors in the former, make-do center.
Bach said she was stunned by the building’s beauty and the quality of the presentation.
“I love it,” she said simply.
That’s exactly what people such as Holly Demuth, North Carolina director of the Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, were hoping. Demuth used words such as “topnotch” and “top quality” in describing the visitor center.
The Friends group chipped in $550,000 toward the exhibits and visitor orientation. The Great Smoky Mountains Association paid for the building and adjacent 1,700-square-foot “comfort station,” the euphemistically designated public restrooms.
“I think this signifies the role private funding can play,” Demuth said. “This has been part of the park’s plan for all those years, but the funding just wasn’t there.”
Demuth added that she believes the visitor center goes a long ways toward underscoring the increasingly important role the national park plays in North Carolina.
Relations between N.C. residents and the park haven’t always been smooth sailing. There’s lingering bitterness over the forced evacuation of farms and rural communities to make way for the park’s creation, and long-festering rancor over a road through the park that was promised to Swain County but never built.
The North Carolina entrance to the park saw three million visitors last year, less than half the number on the Tennessee-side of the park. Having a real visitor center might help attract people to this side of the park.
“We are proud to be a part of this process, of bringing a visitor center that is appropriate for bringing people into the park here in North Carolina,” Demuth said.
Shawn Byrd, a visitor from Michigan who was on his first visit to the Smokies, was suitably impressed, describing his impressions of the exhibits as “informative” and helpful to him in understanding Southern Appalachian culture and development.
Kent Cave, the park’s interpretive branch chief, would have been delighted to hear Byrd.
In a brainstorming meeting held in October 2008, Cave remembers discussing possible “themes” for the future visitor center. The folks gathered that day talked quite a bit, he said, about the need to dispel myths about mountain culture.
“We seized on an idea to show how land was used over time,” Cave said. “And we were very careful to integrate the Cherokee story throughout.”
In other words, the park story is the Cherokees’ story, too, the ranger said in explanation. Careful and meticulous attention was devoted to working with Cherokee experts on how they should tell this intertwined story, and that of the white Southern Appalachians who came to these mountains.
“I think we hit it pretty well,” Cave said.
Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, believes so, too.
“Anytime there is an opportunity for visitors to receive information about an area they discover something that they most likely never knew,” Pegg said. “If the visitors stop at the new visitor center and discover a new attraction or hike or fishing opportunity they are likely to extend their stay and in turn put more money into our economy — and that is a very good thing.”
“Pooh” Cooper Lancaster, owner of Madison’s on Main in Bryson City, and in Cherokee, Great Smoky Fine Arts and The Native American Craft Shop, said the visitor center was “desperately needed.”
“And it’s about time they’ve put a little money and building on this side of the park,” the Swain County native said. “I’m tired of Tennessee getting everything. North Carolina, as a state, has not done a good job of promoting the park.”
But with the coming of the new visitor center, Lancaster said she believes that now is truly changing.
A ribbon cutting and celebration for the new visitor center at the North Carolina entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be held at 11 a.m. on Friday.
Doug McFalls spent last winter as caretaker at LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The lodge is near the 6,593-foot summit of Mt. LeConte, the third highest peak in the Smokies.
“I came away with a better understanding of myself,” McFalls said. “I spent the vast majority of my time with me.”
Allyson Virden, who along with her husband Chris manages the lodge during the season, noted on the “High on Leconte” blog www.highonleconte.com: “I like to call those of us who love working up top a ‘special breed.’ I can say that because I am one. Many of the crew come to the mountain to enjoy a simpler life and have time to enjoy nature.”
McFalls, an avid reader and budding photographer, fit that bill.
“I’ve worked in the hospitality industry most of my life, but I’m OK alone,” McFalls said. “One can really step away up there and enjoy the peace and serenity.”
There is certainly solitude and time for relaxing pastimes like reading, but sleeping in isn’t one of them.
“We’re asked to check the weather station every morning at 7 a.m. and report the conditions to dispatch at the National Park Service,” said McFalls. The National Weather Service station at LeConte records minimum and maximum temperatures plus precipitation totals.
McFalls said wind conditions weren’t recorded at LeConte because conditions are too harsh and too remote for an anemometer to work properly (they can ice up) and be maintained and calibrated regularly.
McFalls said breakfast was usually in order after a trip to the weather station and then, if power was good, he would update his website and perhaps post some new photos. Next he would walk the grounds and check on all the cabins and buildings. One day after a wind event he discovered a cabin with a missing door and a broken window.
McFalls said he also kept an eye on the backcountry shelter that’s just under a mile from the lodge.
“There are more winter hiking enthusiasts in the park than most people would think,” he said. “Most of them are experienced hikers, knowledgeable and well prepared, but occasionally you run across someone who isn’t prepared.”
LeConte caretakers and all seasonal staff are trained in Wilderness First-Aid and all are CPR certified. The Park Service depends on LeConte’s caretakers to assist in any emergencies and/or rescues around the lodge.
McFalls said he always greeted hikers he met on the trails near the lodge and invited them in to warm up and re-hydrate. According to McFalls, dehydration can slip up on winter hikers.
“It’s so cold, you don’t realize you’re thirsty,” he said.
McFalls said that most of the hikers he encountered during his stay as caretaker were in good shape and just happy to have a warm dry place to sit and relax for a while. But one hiker from Indiana wasn’t so lucky.
“When he left Gatlinburg it was in the low 30s and misty,” McFalls said, “but by the time he had made it up here it was between 8 and 10 degrees and snowing. He was dehydrated and suffering from mild hypothermia.”
McFalls cared for the hiker at the lodge until a park ranger and medic made it up the mountain.
“The weather was so bad it took the ranger and medic a day to make it up here,” McFalls said.
The hiker required about a day and a half of care before he was strong enough to hike back down with the ranger and medic.
Often the day-to-day living on LeConte during winther months harkens back to earlier times. Solar panels provide the only electricity and the cloudy, short days of winter with their accompanying snowfall can make electricity a scarce commodity. McFalls said there was running water until it gets really cold, then the caretaker is left to haul water up from the spring. The caretaker uses propane to heat with and it has to be flown in by helicopter. And there’s that tromp through the snow to get to the outhouse.
Winter on LeConte is either spectacular, scary, or maybe some of both, depending on your point of view. The record low temperature recorded on Mt. LeConte was minus 32 degrees fahrenheit on Jan. 13, 1986. The record high was 80 degrees fahrenheit on Aug. 9, 1995. The coldest temperature McFalls recorded during his stay was minus 9 degrees fahrenheit.
“But it hovered around zero for nearly a week at one stretch,” McFalls said.
Because there is no anemometer on LeConte, McFalls was left to estimate wind speeds.
“There were days when I estimated sustained winds to be between 30 and 40 miles per hour and estimated gusts to be between 70 and 80 miles per hour,” he said. “The wind can be quite an event. You can be snug as a bug in a rug, deep asleep in your warm bed and the wind will shake the whole cabin. It’ll definitely wake you up!”
The annual snowfall for the peak at Mt. Leconte averages just a little over 71 inches. McFalls recorded 51 inches of snow at one point last winter.
And winter isn’t necessarily through with LeConte when the lodge opens back up in March.
“We had to shovel paths to all the cabins through two-and-a-half feet of snow when we opened the third week of March ,” McFalls said.
McFalls caught occasional glimpses of other visitors besides winter hikers. He said there was a red fox den near the lodge and that resident raccoons were constantly trying to investigate the buildings. He saw signs of bobcats and coyotes, and even in the dead of winter one of the resident bears would sometimes make an appearance.
“He minded his business and I minded mine,” said McFalls.
He also said that ravens, which are fairly common during the season, would come and go during the winter.
McFalls said the caretaker begins stocking provisions late in the season while the lodge is still open and the llama train is running.
“A llama pack train brings supplies and packs out laundry three days a week during season, and near the end of the season the pack will begin bringing up can goods, rice and beans and dry goods. Right at the end of the season, they’ll bring up things like potatoes and carrots.”
The caretaker does get a little R&R during the winter when they can arrange for a substitute caretaker.
“On those trips to town you can pick up things like milk and eggs,” said McFalls.
McFalls grew up in Gatlinburg, Tenn. His Dad was born in the Park and his Mom went to Sevierville High School with Dolly Parton.
“I’ve spent a lot of time hiking these mountains, and when I stayed at the lodge for the first time back in the 90s I knew I wanted to work here,” McFalls said.
He was hired for the season in 2008.
“I took that first winter off, but when I came back in 2009 I took the winter caretaker job plus worked this season. I was at the lodge through the winter and up until Thanksgiving this year.
“I love the peace and serenity of it. It’s so remote and so beautiful. The winter I stayed at the lodge, it was a shock when I would go down the mountain. Town was distracting — there was constant input. I was happy to get back up top where there was time to think and reflect,” McFalls said.
“I wouldn’t close the door on it,” said McFall of aother winter on LeConte. “But I’ve experienced most of LeConte. More than I ever thought I would when I signed up for my first season. And it has instilled a desire for other adventures.”
McFalls has applied for a position as a ridgerunner with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Ridgerunners spend most of their day out on the trail talking with hikers and keeping and eye on trail conditions. “Can you imagine getting paid to hike the AT through the Smokies?” McFalls said, almost wistfully.
You can get an idea of what McFalls experienced at LeConte Lodge by visiting www.ReflectionsOfTheSmokies.com.
This winter’s caretaker is Alexander Hughes. You can keep up on this winter’s happenings at LeConte at www.highonleconte.com/daily-posts.html
LeConte Lodge is the only private lodging facility in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park open to paying guests.
The rustic cluster of log cabins has a capacity of 60 guests per night housed in one of the 7 rough-hewn cabins or 3 multi-room lodges. There is no electricity but hot meals are served twice daily. The only way to get to LeConte is by hiking.
Although LeConte Lodge is now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, it predates the establishment of the park in 1934. Jack Huff, a Gatlinburg mountaineer and founder of the rustic lodge, began building the retreat in 1926.
Eight years later, Jack and Pauline Huff were married at a sunrise service at LeConte’s now-famous Myrtle Point, the traditional place to watch spectacular performances of daybreak. Jack, Pauline and their family continued to operate the lodge until 1960. It is presently operated under the auspices of Stokely Hospitality Enterprises.
LeConte Lodge is open from mid-March through late November. For information visit www.leconte-lodge.com.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Supervisory Fisheries Biologist Steve Moore was recently recognized with two national awards for his leadership in native trout stream restoration in the Smokies and at national parks across the nation.
Moore recently received the Aldo Starker Leopold Medal by the Wild Trout Symposium and the Trout Unlimited Trout Conservation Professional Award.
Both awards recognize the more than 25 years of achievement by Moore’s in restoring populations of native brook trout to streams in the Smokies, and assisting with other projects including the restoration of bull trout to Crater Lake National Park (Ore.) and to North Cascade National Park (Wash.) and restoring Bonneville cutthroat trout to Great Basin National Park (Nev.).
Throughout the country, a combination of habitat degradation and extensive stocking of non-native fish species have taken a heavy toll on numerous species of native trout, which typically require cold, clear, pristine water for survival. In many cases streams that may have been degraded by siltation or pollution have been cleaned up, but the native trout still need a helping hand to return.
According to Deputy Park Superintendent, Kevin FitzGerald, “One of the core missions of national parks is to preserve natural biodiversity which sometimes means restoring native plant and animal species which have been displaced from their historic homes by earlier human impacts,” said Deputy Park Superintendent Kevin FitzGerald.
In the Smokies, the brook trout was the only native species of trout, but they were crowded out of all but the most isolated high-elevation streams when — with the best of intentions —logging companies and early park managers released rainbow and later brown trout into Park streams in the early 20th Century.”
In the Smokies the brookies that remain in the headwaters face a double threat. They are squeezed between heavy competition from rainbows and browns downstream, and airborne acid deposition upstream that has made the water too acidic to support trout. The key to preserving the Appalachian brook trout is to remove the non-native trout from selected segments of lower-elevation streams and then to assist the brookies in moving downstream into less acidic waters.
To be suitable for restoration, a stream segment must have a record of a pure brook trout population in the past and a waterfall or other barrier at the lower end that prevents non-native fish from returning back upstream. Restoration of each segment involves removal of the non-natives through either electro-shocking and/or chemicals. Over the last 24 years of the Park’s Brook Trout Restoration Program, Park biologists — assisted by a small army of state fishery managers and volunteers from Trout Unlimited — have restored a total of 24.1 miles of stream to brook trout habitat.
Restoring each segment involves close coordination of 20 or more biologists and volunteers who string nets, electro-shock and relocate the non-natives, add and monitor the chemicals used and add neutralizing agents at the lower end of the segment being restored.
“Stream restoration is such a complex and labor-intensive process that the Park could never even attempt it without the financial support and/or hands-on assistance of all the neighboring entities such as Trout Unlimited, Tennessee Brookies, Friends of the Smokies, and the Tennessee and North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commissions.” FitzGerald said. “Steve has become nationally-recognized master of planning these restoration projects and brokering together a huge number of partners to get them done. We welcome this opportunity to acknowledge this well deserved recognition of Steve and show our appreciation to all the partners that he has brought into the mix over the years.”
The U.S. Forest Service spent the first two weeks of November felling approximately 150 dead and/or dying eastern hemlocks in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest adjacent to the Joyce Kilmer National Recreation Trail.
The hemlocks, many of them centuries old, had been ravaged by the hemlock woolly adelgid and were considered public safety hazards.
The hemlock woolly adelgid is an invasive exotic aphid-like insect that kills hemlocks by feeding on the sap at the base of the tree’s needles causing the needles to turn brown and fall off. With no needles (leaves) to provide nutrients, the tree ultimately starves to death. The hemlock woolly adelgid has nearly extirpated the eastern hemlock from the forested landscape of the Southern Appalachians.
The dead and dying hemlocks adjacent to the trail at Joyce Kilmer presented a danger to public safety and needed to be removed. However, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is within the congressionally designated Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness area, where mechanical equipment like chainsaws is prohibited.
But, according to Cheoah District Ranger Steve Lohr, there were other considerations as well.
“One option would have been to close the area for three to five years and let nature take its course,” Lohr said. “But due to the popularity of the area, and its positive economic impact for Graham County, that wasn’t a practical solution.”
Approximately 35,000 people visit the area annually. Lohr said the dilemma was to come up with a plan that would ensure public safety while preserving the wilderness aspect of Joyce Kilmer.
The Forest Service came up with a novel (at least for eastern forests) solution. They decided to use dynamite to blast the dead hemlocks. Forest Service certified blasters attached explosives to trunks of the hemlock and then detonated them from a safe distance. Certified blaster Jon Hakala from Minnesota was the lead blaster.
Lohr said the trees could be felled with an amazing degree of accuracy and pointed to one stump where a dead hemlock had been taken out within feet of a living tree. The amount of explosive varied according to the size of the tree. Lohr said the hemlocks that were taken out at Joyce Kilmer took from 28 to 35 pounds of explosives. The largest hemlock felled had a diameter of 47 inches.
Aesthetics also played a big part in the decision to use dynamite. “Since this is a wilderness area, we wanted it to look as natural as possible,” Lohr said. “Smooth, sawn stumps just wouldn’t look right.” The dynamite blasts, however, leave a jagged, splintered stump that mimics natural windthrow.
Deputy District Ranger, Lauren Stull said that charges were set at different heights on the trunks to make it look like a wind or ice event had taken the trees out. On a tour of the site, Stull pointed to two nearly identical stumps about 10 feet apart. “The one on the left fell during a wind event on Oct. 25,” she said, “and the one on the right was blasted.”
Many of the felled hemlocks fell across the trail. Forest Service employees with crosscut saws (a primitive tool) cut the massive timbers out of the trail.
The plan to take the hemlocks out had been in the works for a year or so. The Forest Service had to go through the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process. Lohr said the service worked with local organizations like Partners of Joyce Kilmer and the Graham Revitalization Economic Action Team as well as national groups like the Wilderness Society. Stull said that the organizations supported the plan, realizing it was necessary for public safety.
The timing put off some bear hunters, but Stull said the service worked as quickly as possible to minimize the time the area was closed and that Forest Service staff were always on hand to ensure that no hunting dogs were in the vicinity during blasting.
Lohr said that because the area was used by the federally endangered Indiana bat, NEPA regulations prohibited blasting from April 1 through Oct. 15.
The stumps, logs and all the debris will be left as long as it’s not in the trail. Once again, the idea is to mimic natural gap creation in an old-growth forest. Lohr said he expected rhododendron, birch and poplar would begin to regenerate in the gaps but noted that there could be a lot of herbaceous understory prevalent in the immediate future. Stull also pointed out that small hemlocks were already present in the understory.
Candace Wyman, public affairs staff officer for the Forest Service was also present on the tour. She noted that the area with its “new” gap dynamics presents an ideal situation for area colleges and/or universities to conduct long term studies.
Stull noted that the service was in contact with Graham County schools about doing some hands-on learning for the local schools. Both Stull and Lohr said that the service was interested in monitoring the area but that no formal studies had been proposed or discussed at this point.
The Forest Service is extremely challenged in these times of rampant development and widespread invasive exotics to fulfill its mission of sustaining the health, diversity and productivity of America’s national forests.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park began operating on its winter schedule Nov. 1, which includes the closing of seven of 10 campgrounds.
Through the month of November, the Sugarlands Visitor Center, two miles south of Gatlinburg, will open daily from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. The Oconaluftee Visitor Center, two miles north of Cherokee, will serve visitors from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. The Cades Cove Visitor Center, located halfway around the Cades Cove Loop Road, will be opened daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
The visitor center hours for the remaining winter months are posted on the park’s website, www.nps.gov/grsm.
Several of the secondary roads are scheduled to close as indicated: Balsam Mountain/Heintooga Roads on Nov. 1, Roundbottom/Straight Fork on Nov. 16, Parson Branch and Rich Mountain Roads on Nov. 22, and Clingmans Dome and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail on Dec. 1.
During the winter months, the park’s two main roads, Newfound Gap (U.S. 441) and Little River, will remain open except for temporary closures for extreme winter weather conditions.
The Gatlinburg Bypass, Cades Cove Loop Road, Cosby Road, Greenbrier Road, Upper Tremont, Forge Creek, Lakeview Drive and Foothills Parkway (East and West) will open and close as road and weather conditions mandate.
For more information on winter weather road conditions, contact the park at 865.436.1200 (Then select option “2” and select “2” again to access road info).
Two of the three major campgrounds will remain open all year. These year-round campgrounds are Cades Cove in Tennessee and Smokemont in North Carolina. Starting Nov. 1, they will be on a self-registration basis with a reduced number of available sites. Elkmont Campground in Tennessee will remain open through the Thanksgiving weekend and will close on Dec. 1.
Balsam Mountain campground is already closed for the season. The six remaining self-registration campgrounds at Cosby, Cataloochee, Deep Creek, Big Creek, Look Rock and Abrams Creek, closed on Nov. 1.
Smokemont Riding Stable closed on Nov. 2. Sugarlands Riding Stable and Smoky Mountain Riding Stable will close on Nov. 29. Cades Cove Riding Stable will close on Dec. 22, but will reopen Dec. 26-Jan. 2. The Cades Cove Stable will also be closed on Thanksgiving Day. The closing dates are dependent on weather conditions.
All five horse camps — Round Bottom, Tow String, Cataloochee, Big Creek, and Anthony Creek — will close Nov. 15.
With the ginseng season just getting under way, federal and state law enforcement officers again are turning to cutting-edge technology in their efforts to root-out poachers.
Dye, coded chips and DNA markers are now widely used to deter and detect poachers in 13 states, including North Carolina, and at least two other countries. The use of markers was pioneered by Sylva resident Jim Corbin, a plant protection specialist for the state Department of Agriculture.
“We know it works as a deterrent,” he said. “In one study, it was 98-percent effective in keeping poachers out of the system.”
Twenty-five poachers were identified and then watched. Of that group, just one actively continued to dig ginseng illegally, Corbin said. He attributed that decrease to increased efforts to mark plants and prosecute offenders.
Ginseng has long been sought in Asia, where the root has for centuries enjoyed a reputation as a heal-all elixir and aphrodisiac. So much so, Asian ginseng has been wiped out of existence in China, increasing collecting pressures on its kissing cousin, American ginseng. The market for ginseng also has exploded recently in the U.S.
“Its popularity has moved from traditional uses to use as a modern herbal medicine,” said Nancy Gray of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “And poaching continues to be a huge issue for us in this park.”
It is illegal to collect ginseng from the Smokies. It can, however, legally be harvested from private lands — permission is required to harvest off private lands that are not one’s own — and permits to collect on most national forest lands are available.
Strict prohibition hasn’t stopped poachers from helping themselves to the declining ginseng population in the Smokies, though.
Since 1992, more than 11,000 roots illegally gathered have been seized by law enforcement and returned to the Smokies, Gray said.
“But we know that’s only a small percentage of what we think has actually been taken from this park,” she said, adding that the illegal activity is now taking place during the summer months, not just during the traditional mountain “sanging” time in the fall.
Red berries appear in the fall. These can help to more easily identify the nondescript, five-leaved plant. But many poachers are adept at spotting the herb even without the distinctive berry cluster, and start illegally collecting it almost as soon as the ginseng emerges from the ground. They are also harvesting the plant at younger and younger stages.
Some dealers, recognizing that the ginseng roots they are being sold sometimes have been harvested illegally, do return roots to the Smokies for replanting, Gray said.
The dye marker used in the Smokies is bright, University of Tennessee orange, and the roots bearing the dye are ruined for commercial use. The calcium-based dye is environmentally safe. Just enough dirt is scraped away to expose the ginseng root and the dye is applied.
Markers with information identifying where the plant was growing are also sometimes inserted into roots.
Ginseng grows very slowly.
“It takes about seven years for the plant to reproduce,” Gray said. “So even if we do replant, it takes a long time for it to recover.”
In addition to using the markers, rangers have been aggressively prosecuting captured poachers. There were three convictions in 2008 and two convictions in 2009.
Wild ginseng fetches a higher price than that cultivated commercially. Scott Persons, coauthor of Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and other Woodland Medicinals, helped develop most of the cultivation methods now widely used today.
Persons has been growing ginseng at Tuckasegee Valley Ginseng in Jackson County for three decades.
It can be cultivated in a way that simulates wild conditions, he said. This could help relieve some of the poaching pressures on the coveted herb.
“If you have a great place for ginseng, stick it in the ground and let it grow naturally, it will look natural,” Persons said.
Persons has cultivated ginseng for 30 years, but over time, word of his high-dollar crop spread and his ginseng plot became the target of poachers.
He installed hidden cameras, marked his roots, got new dogs and relied on the watchful eyes of neighbors to alert him to trespassers. But even then, poachers would come onto his property in broad daylight.
Those with large operations may resort to motion detector cameras with night-vision capabilities, live-streaming video, motion-triggered alarms and even a hired man to patrol the perimeter, Persons said.
“If you have a lot of ginseng growing, you can afford to have security measures to protect your crop, but it is a limiting factor,” said Persons.
Poaching got so aggravating that Persons says he has drastically scale back his ginseng cultivation. Because of the struggling economy, Corbin is worried that poachers will be hitting the woods this fall in force. That pressure might further intensify if prices, as early numbers indicate, go even higher.
A pound of wild ginseng is currently fetching about $110. There are approximately 50 roots to a pound, Corbin said.
The Swain and Jackson County Extension Service is taking orders for ginseng seed. The cost is $10 per ounce and $150 per pound. Payment must accompany orders. Interested buyers can bring their checks by the Swain or Jackson County Extension Service offices or mail to P.O. Box 2329, Bryson City, N.C., 28713. Orders must be placed by Sept. 16. 828.488.3848 or 828.586.4009 for information.
Matt Kulp, fisheries biologist with Great Smoky Mountain National Park, will be speaking at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 20, at The Plateau Fly Fishing club meeting in Cashiers.
Kulp will discuss “What’s going on in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park — an aquatics and fisheries update including where to find the brook trout.”
A raffle will be held featuring various fly fishing accessories and an Orvis five weight fly rod.
The talk will be held the Albert Carlton Cashiers Library. Everyone is welcome. 828.885.7130.