High peaks offer the last vestige for vanishing cool-climate species
The fight for survival is nothing new for high-elevation species in Southern Appalachia.
After the glaciers receded at the end of the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago and temperatures warmed, remnants of a cold-weather forest in southern Appalachia were forced high up the mountain slopes. There, they hung on to small, ever-shrinking islands in the upper reaches of the Smoky Mountains — where the coniferous trees on the high peaks more closely resemble southern Canada than North Carolina.
Devil’s Courthouse, a Blue Ridge Parkway landmark south of Waynesville, is a towering example of this type of landscape, where its high elevations give the cool-weather ecosystem refuge. The pinnacle’s tree-covered slope harbors species specific only to the upper thresholds of Appalachia, while the formation’s rock cliffs is home to fragile life forms that hang on to existence, like the Appalachian Clubmoss an endangered plant in North Carolina, which clings to the rocky ledges of Devil’s Courthouse.
The natural composition of the area is so fragile that National Park Service botanists monitor the populations of plants found in and around the cliff face in biological surveys conducted periodically and sometimes by rappelling carefully down the rocky wall.
Yet, the ecosystem is under a barrage of threats from global warming, air pollution and invaders such as fungi and insects which are taking their toll on tree species that anchor these high-elevation forests.
Ranger Gail Fox, a Blue Ridge Parkway ranger who led a guided hike to Devil’s Courthouse last week, pointed out the unique situation in which the forest exists.
“This is a remnant forest,” Fox said. “It is a forest that is really unique and special but also threatened in many ways.”
The rapid pace of human-caused global warming, accelerated when compared with natural warming that occurred since the last Ice Age, is pressuring the cold-weather habitat out of existence. As the planet warms at an increasing rate, the elevation line where this unique ecosystem exists is pushed higher up the mountain. It currently is found at elevations over 5,600 feet. As that mark moves higher up the slopes, the micro-habitat could eventually be left with nowhere to go.
Also, some have theorized that the Hemlock woolly adelgid, an invasive insect which targets the hemlock trees may be aided by a warming climate. The insect attacks hemlocks causing them to be weakened or die. As trees topple they take with them the shade that creates the cool, moist understory habitat which hosts dozens of other species.
Fox said the Park Service doesn’t have the resources to confront the invaders — the infestation can be treated but requires a labor-intensive process of injecting a solution into the root system of compromised trees – and the larger problem of greenhouse gasses is outside of the park’s control.
Fox said if the soil is dried and warmed significantly, caused by holes in the vanishing canopy or a warming climate, the ground becomes inhospitable for the smaller plant species beneath.
Walking through the understory leading up to the summit at Devil’s Courthouse, one can find a variety of those rare plants including the pink turtlehead flower, or Chelone Iyonii, named after the Greek nymph Chelone who was transformed into a turtle, and the Michaux’s Saxifrage, a small, flowering plant named after a French botanist but found only on the rocky tops of the southern Appalachians in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and parts of South Carolina.
These delicate plants are in school of several others, such as the spreading Avens and Galax, which live alongside it in shade of the spruce, hemlocks and firs.
Although the greater danger for these plants is the grander changes in the fragile habitat of the high-elevation forest, they also specifically face pressure from human scavengers who seek them out for commercial use.
The Avens are coveted for their bright yellow flowers, and the Galax is desirable as a base plant in floral arrangements because it remains green for considerable time after being pulled out of the soil. Fox said park enforcement officials are in a constant battle to combat the illegal harvesting of these flora.
Ironically, while the remnant forest at Devil’s Courthouse faces a litany of environmental threats, many stemming from human activities, the place takes it name from a mythical creature who was sworn to protect the natural environment. The Cherokee legend tells of a slant-eyed, giant, Judaculla, whose purpose was to defend the natural resources and punish those who abused the ecosystem. Judaculla had the nickname “devil” and often operated at night so as not to be seen by others. As the legend goes, he would make those poaching animals or cutting down trees they weren’t supposed to stand trial in a cave nestled in the cliff.
Peregrine Falcon: Devil’s Courthouse most signature species
The high cliff and the long-distance views from Devil’s Courthouse makes it the perfect habitat for predatory birds such as the Peregrine Falcon.
The Peregrine Falcon has been clocked at speeds of 200 miles per hour while in its hunting plunge, making it the fastest animal on the planet. Its also one of the most agile — able to punch its prey, usually a song bird, in midair with its balled talons, stunning it and then grabbing its soon-to-be meal before it hits the ground.
“It’s quite impressive, and it can just be an explosion of feathers,” said Ranger Gail Fox, a Blue Ridge Parkway ranger who led a guided hike to Devil’s Courthouse last week.
The nests of the Peregrine Falcon, which are not actually nests at all but just a flat spot on the cliff, were one of the reasons rock climbing on Devil’s Courthouse rock face was recently prohibited — if not for the safety of the falcon’s offspring, but also for the safety of the climbers who might happen up the sharp talons of a defensive mother.
In the mid-1900s the adverse effects of DDT threatened the eggs of the falcons, but after the chemical was banned in the 1970s the population has rebounded to repopulate cliff sides in places like Devil’s Courthouse.
The population crashed to fewer than 350 nesting pairs and had disappeared entirely from the eastern U.S. Their comeback was aided by captive breeding and reintroduction efforts by biologists. Peregrine falcons have recovered enough they are no longer on the list of endangered species.
Catch a Parkway hike
Blue Ridge Parkway rangers lead weekly guided hikes on the southern section of the Parkway. Check the Outdoors section of the calendar in the back of The Smoky Mountain News for the hike of the week.