The good news featured last month about the previous year’s protection of 1,000 more acres of our region’s beloved natural treasures was only half of the story. Often overlooked is the fact that placing land in protection can be just the beginning of the conservation process.
Once conserved, active stewardship efforts are imperative in order to uphold critical natural heritage values of properties under the protection of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC). Stewardship not only preserves existing merits, but often enhances, restores, and makes accessible these already precious local lands.
Read on to learn how several of CMLC’s stewardship initiatives improved and preserved many of our community’s protected lands in 2014.
Advancing the Little Bearwallow Trail
Made possible by CMLC’s acquisition of the Wildcat Rock tract in 2013, the next segment of the budding Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail broke ground last year in an effort to link the summit of Little Bearwallow Mountain to the new public trailhead on Highway 74A in Gerton. Phase 1 of the new Little Bearwallow Trail was constructed by the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps and a private contactor last spring.
The new footpath ascends from the trailhead 1.1 miles up the north slopes of Little Bearwallow to a picturesque 100-foot waterfall. Because this new section of trail partially traverses private property, a permanent public trail easement was purchased from CMLC conservation landowners John Myers and Jane Lawson.
“It was always our vision protect this land and share it with the community,” said Myers.
Myers and Lawson were recently awarded CMLC’s prestigious Lela McBride Award for their commitment to the conservation of the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge and innovative vision to connect conserved lands by public trails.
Phases 2 and 3 of the Little Bearwallow Trail are still under construction and not yet open to the public. They are being built by the Carolina Mountain Club (CMC), North Carolina and Vermont Youth Conservation Corps crews, and a private contractor. All three phases of the new trail are expected to be open for hiking in 2016.
“This trail is an example of making the most out of all resources available,” said Ed Sutton, owner of Trail Dynamics, the contracting company hired to construct a portion of the new trail. “It’s a hybrid project that has utilized skilled labor from volunteer, semi-professional, and professional trailbuilders. It is exciting to be part of it.”
“When it’s done, Little Bearwallow will be one of the best new trails in the region. It has everything hikers love—a waterfall, cliffs, wildflowers, and a scenic viewpoint,” said Sutton. “And eventually, it will be a second route to the top of Bearwallow Mountain, the most popular spot [in the Upper Gorge] of all.”
Sutton added that the Little Bearwallow Trail not only has natural features coveted by outdoor enthusiasts, but each phase will appeal to different users. “The hike to Little Bearwallow Falls is only about a mile each way and can be completed by most folks, regardless of age or ability.”
For intermediate hikers, Sutton said “those seeking a view and a slightly longer hike will soon be able to continue beyond the falls for another mile to Wildcat Rock. More experienced hikers can keep going from there for more of a backcountry experience.”
The trail project—which will ultimately extend three miles—was made possible with funding from the Recreational Trails Program, Conservation Trust for North Carolina, Donald Jones Foundation, REI, and Fernandez Pave the Way Foundation.
When completed, the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail will connect multiple conserved lands of CMLC and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy by a 15-mile continuous footpath circumnavigating the high ridges surrounding the community of Gerton.
The trail network features waterfalls, dramatic cliff faces, rock outcroppings, and expansive summit vistas. It can be accessed within a 35 minute drive from Asheville, Hendersonville, or Lake Lure.
Bog Restorations in Flat Rock
In addition to monitoring more than 100 existing conservation easements in 2014—an important obligation undertaken annually to ensure that conservation values of protected properties persist—CMLC partnered with the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) in an effort to restore Flat Rock’s King Creek bog.
The project focused on removing invasive plants threatening native, rare species that call the bog home. These invading weeds also disturb natural water levels and hydrology critical to sustaining the bog itself.
“USFWS calls it the holy grail of mountain bogs in terms of its conservation significance,” said CMLC stewardship director Sarah Fraser.
Restorations efforts also got underway last year at Hyder Pasture, another Flat Rock mountain bog. CMLC acquired the former wetland in 2013 and intends to complete a full-restoration of the bog in 2015. The project is again in partnership with USFWS, as well as NC’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund.
Partners hope that the project will mirror CMLC’s successful rehabilitation of nearby Ochlawaha Bog. Both bogs are home to the bunched arrowhead flower, one of the rarest plant species in the nation.
The bunched arrowhead is found not found anywhere in the world outside of Henderson and Spartanburg counties. The gradual disappearance of local mountain bogs nearly resulted in its the extinction.
“It may be the rarest flower in our community,” said Fraser. “We hope that our efforts will keep it around so it can continue to be part of our local heritage.”
Biologists feared that the flower had vanished forever from the Ocklawaha Bog several years ago, but its blooms returned triumphantly following the completion of the bog’s restoration in 2012.
“It has already begun to come back at Hyder Pasture, too,” said Fraser of the success of efforts to-date. “We’ll keep making sure its home there is permanent.”
In 2014, CMLC ramped up its stewardship efforts in the fight against the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA). For more than a decade, the non-native pest has been decimating hemlock trees across the southern Appalachians. With help from local HWA consultant and CMLC-conservation landowner Patrick Horan, of Sapphire, the land trust released 4,600 predator beetles on threatened hemlocks.
The beetles are natural predators to the adelgid. Previous releases have visibly slowed hemlock degeneration on CMLC conserved lands.
The releases were in partnership with private landowners of CMLC conservation easements. Beetles were also deployed on CMLC-owned conservation lands like the Wildcat Rock tract which hosts the less common Carolina hemlock species on its cliffs.
Unlike the blight that eliminated chestnuts trees of grandeur from our landscape in the early 20th century, Horan believes that recent intervention with beetles will prevent HWA from eradicating hemlocks. “There will still be hemlocks in 100 years,” said Horan.
Preserving Biodiversity in the Hickory Nut Gorge
The Weed Action Coalition of the Hickory Nut Gorge (WAC-HNG), a CMLC initiative to expel invasive plants in conservation focus areas surrounding Gerton, Bat Cave, and Lake Lure, treated a total of 372 acres previously infested by non-native species in 2014.
WAC-HNG and CMLC utilized both volunteer manpower as well as goats to pull out the non-native plants before reseeding with native species.
“The Hickory Nut Gorge is one of the most biodiverse locations in our region,” said David Lee, WAC-HNG Project Coordinator. “There are plants and animals found here that aren’t found anywhere else.”
Since invading plants can easily outcompete indigenous species, Lee said that the impact of WAC-HNG’s projects can prevent rare native plants from disappearing entirely from the Gorge . Said Lee, “When a species disappears, the entire balance of our ecosystem could be threatened. By restoring native habitat, we preserve not just those plants but potentially all living things.”
CMLC has protected more than 28,000 acres at more than 150 projects among the Blue Ridge Escarpment, French Broad River Valley, Hickory Nut Gorge, and beyond since its inception in 1994. For more information and to support land conservation in WNC, visit carolinamountain.org.