Biodiversity Bushwhackers

Mike Knoerr, biology and environmental science teacher at Lake Lure Classical Academy, has a deep-seated belief that he has a responsibility to ensure his generation understands the importance of conserving the natural world.

Among the courses he teaches, Knoerr offers The Appalachian Naturalist, an elective for high school students at the academy. In addition to traditional classroom-based instruction, Knoerr usually incorporates one day each week for field-based learning to provide students a hands-on opportunity to study — as well as make a positive impact upon — our region's natural heritage.

“The opportunity to guide so many young minds in a profoundly positive way is a responsibility I take very seriously,” Knoerr said. “For me, it's the greatest gift of teaching.”

As part of the elective curriculum, in late 2013 Knoerr's students began working with the Weed Action Coalition of the Hickory Nut Gorge — abbreviated WAC-HNG and cleverly pronounced whacking — to aid in its mission to control and eradicate non-native plants that negatively impact native ecosystems in our region.

WAC-HNG is an initiative started in 2012 by Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy. Its work spans three counties through the Hickory Nut Gorge — extending from the Henderson-Buncombe boundary near Gerton to Lake Lure in Rutherford County.

Its efforts focus on protecting the natural heritage and scenic beauty of the gorge by managing the establishment and spread of invasive species. These goals are pursued through inventorying and removing these plants as well as educating landowners, visitors and, in this case, students.

The interest among Knoerr's students progressed from learning about natural heritage to a commitment toward restoring and preserving it when they adopted a section of Pool Creek near the school in Lake Lure.

The students work weekly to identify and pull out pesky invasive plants such as kudzu and other threatening species that have become rooted along the banks of the stream. Pool Creek drains the eastern half of Chimney Rock State Park, including its scenic Worlds Edge tract protected by CMLC in 2005.

According to Debbie Shetterly, WAC-HNG project coordinator, invasive plant species can increase fire and flood risk, increase erosion, lower property values, and usurp precious water resources. Shetterly said, “Possibly the most critical threat is the danger they pose to native wildlife, both plant and animal species.

“When invasive species take over, biological diversity is lost. Biological diversity is the intricate web which keeps life as we know it functioning. Without each species playing its role, the entire network unravels,” she explained.

Shetterly is grateful that Knoerr understands the importance of diligently managing invasive species — an often overlooked component of natural resource protection — and conveys its complexities to his students.

“He views the natural world as one large super organism, with each species playing merely a small role in the functioning of this superbeing. As small parts of the organism are damaged or die off, it ceases to function at its optimum capability,” she said. “And his students really get it.”

“Mike also recognizes that the future of our natural world depends on this next generation,” Shetterly added. “I'm thrilled that the Lake Lure Classical Academy recognizes the value of this type of learning, and is such a willing partner for this critical project in the Hickory Nut Gorge.”

David Lee, WAC-HNG Assistant project manager, supervises and helps instruct Knoerr's students on invasive plant removal workdays.

“The Hickory Nut Gorge is one of the most biodiverse locales in the Appalachian Mountains,” Lee said. “Managing non-native plants is one of the most effective methods to protect that biodiversity. And it becomes more sustainable when it's a community effort.”

While kudzu is the most visible and subsequently well-known invasive plant in the gorge, it is just one among a handful of unwanted species that the students seek and destroy. According to Lee, at least three other species rank as greater threats to biodiversity, including Oriental bittersweet, tree of heaven and, most of all, Japanese knotwood.

“These plants have the highest potential to impact and negatively affect rare, unique or significant natural communities and endangered animal and plant species,” Lee explained.

The students also scour the banks of Pool Creek for English ivy and periwinkle, two more non-natives that have become established in the Hickory Nut Gorge.

Lee finds the students to be not only hard working, but inquisitive and creative. “They're full of questions, like whether or not the organic material we remove can be used for fertilizer.”

Because it carries seeds that can spread easily, the refuse must be burned after Lee transports it offsite.

The academy's adoption of Pool Creek will ensure that the site will be weed-free well into the future. It also enables subsequent classes of students to play a role in the preservation of the site's biodiversity while continuing to be enriched by a hands-on approach to learning about conservation.

“To impart a strong conservation ethic and scientific understanding in this small window of time I have with them truly means the world to me,” Knoerr said. “I'm so thankful to help them get to know the wonders of their backyard.”

Knoerr ended the most recent work session at Pool Creek by sharing a quote with his students from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

Shetterly said, “I have no doubt that this small group of students can, indeed, change the Hickory Nut Gorge.”

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

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