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Rare Plants and Animals Return to Lands that are Conserved
I was hiking at Bearwallow Mountain recently and had the incredible fortune of sighting a black bear. While many wouldn't consider an encounter with a bear to be an incident worthy of enthusiasm, my past conversations with others — those who had spent far more time on the mountain than myself — made me realize just how lucky I was to see one.
Despite its name, Bearwallow Mountain hasn't always been home to many bears. Clyde Curtis of Candler for 35 years staffed the fire lookout tower atop Bearwallow's summit. Curtis' lookout duties involved manning the tower every day and scanning the horizon to perform fire detection for the valleys below. He spent a lot of time looking out across that mountain. “I only saw a bear up there on two occasions,” Curtis said of his three-and-a-half decades on Bearwallow. “There didn't seem to be many up there.”
After my bear encounter, I couldn't help but think that my sighting wasn't a once-in-a-decade incident, but rather it may have been the visible impact that land conservation has had upon this mountain and throughout our region.
Beginning in 2009, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy protected 81 acres at the top of Bearwallow Mountain when its landowner bestowed a conservation easement on the peak. CMLC hopes to enter another 90 acres along its ridgeline into a conservation easement by the end of this year, and is ultimately striving to protect more than 400 total acres on the mountain. Altogether, CMLC has conserved more than 1,000 acres in the area in and around the Hickory Nut Gorge — the rugged habitat that bears call home.
Conservation easements protect lands with special characteristics — those with high biodiversity, sensitive habitats for plants and animals, or natural resources such as clean water and unique geological features — from being overdeveloped, excessively timbered or impacted in ways that would diminish their natural character or habitat. Seeing that bear on Bearwallow Mountain — once a rare occurrence — suggested to me that land conservation is working.
Landowners who have willingly, and in perpetuity, placed these protective measures upon their lands have staved off the onslaught of rapid deforestation and hastily developed mountain slopes. While many locations in our region have succumbed to overdevelopment, animals such as bears are able to find safe haven on lands where their habitat has been conserved intact.
You don't need to look far to see this example repeated, time and time again, on lands set aside for the purpose of conservation.
In Flat Rock, the über-rare bunched arrowhead was once thought to be gone forever from the Ochlawaha Bog. The flower is so rare that Henderson County and Greenville County, S.C., are the only locations in the world where it is found. Within that area, it only occurs in mountain bogs — habitat that is one of the rarest in all of the southern Appalachians. In the past century, 90 percent of the region's original occurrences of these bogs have been eradicated — most due to intentional drying for development or agriculture. Less than 500 acres of these wetlands remain in our region today.
While Ochlawaha Bog was once a prime habitat for the bunched arrowhead, ditches were installed to drain its moisture to make it suitable for agricultural use. The flower decreased in number and ultimately disappeared from the bog for several years. A joint project undertaken by CMLC and the N.C. Plant Conservation Program in 2010 restored the bog to its original character through reconstruction of the natural meanders of the stream. Following the restoration, bunched arrowhead blooms were spotted at the bog for the first time in years.
Conservation easements totaling 27 acres now protect the globally rare flower's habitat from future habitat destruction.
In Transylvania County, the endangered mountain sweet pitcher plant is also returning in abundance. Beginning in 2008, CMLC again partnered with the N.C. Plant Conservation Program and have since protected 111 acres of the Cedar Mountain Bog. The partnership not only enacted conservation easements, but prescribed burns and invasive species removal were undertaken to restore the bog to habitat suitable for the mountain sweet pitcher plant. Transylvania County is one of only a few counties where the plant is found. And because of local conservation efforts, it's found there a lot more often than it used to be.
Looking toward the sky rather than the land might also provide reminders of the impact of conservation in our region. Peregrine falcons — birds that were once entirely eradicated east of the Mississippi River in the 1970s in part due to habitat destruction — were recently found nesting atop Dunns Rock, a large rock face on the campus of Rockbrook Camp for Girls in Brevard. Reintroductions and efforts to protect their habitat have since helped their populations recover. A conservation easement facilitated by CMLC on the camp in 2010 protects 115 acres of their habitat surrounding Dunns Rock, ensuring that it may always remain a safe haven for these birds of prey.
Like peregrine falcons, bald eagles were once disappearing from our skies. But in recent years, bald eagles have been seen with increasing frequency at numerous CMLC-protected lands, including Worlds Edge near Chimney Rock State Park, Bearwallow Mountain in the Hickory Nut Gorge, and lands in and around DuPont State Recreational Forest. National emphasis on protecting bald eagle habitats have helped bald eagle populations recover — even enough to be recently removed from the federal Endangered Species List.
Conserving land often preserves its past — its history, its stories, and its meaning to those who have held it dear. But protecting land oftentimes restores the past itself — like returning flora and fauna back to their longtime homes among our mountains. These plants and animals contribute as much to the heritage of our region as our own human history on the land. And through land conservation, we can ensure they will always be part of the story in the future.
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.