After 25 years, these nature stories still percolate
by Rob Neufeld, Dec. 2017
One of my New Year’s activities was filing. I had a box of unfiled clippings and papers from the early 1990s. Sorting them has led to this distillation of our region’s relationship with nature.
Next week, “Visiting Our Past” returns to Bent Creek, completing a three-part, biweekly series with the Vanderbilt and Pisgah Forest years.
In 1994, the Associated Press zoomed in on a three-acre site in Henderson County because it was a rare survival—an Appalachian bog. Another one in Henderson County, the reporter noted, had been drained and developed as a business site.
“People once came from miles around to see the orchids flower like snow in July,” the reporter rhapsodized about the lost bog.
Mountain bogs “are among the rarest natural communities in the Southern Appalachians and in
North Carolina,” a 2015 N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission report states. “Unlike northern bogs of glacial origin, Southern Appalachian bogs form in
poorly drained depressions” that are “not subject to flooding.”
They’re spongy, acidic mats often found at the heads of streams. They purify water, control floods, and support a unique ecosystem that includes sphagnum moss, carnivorous pitcher plants, tiny bog turtles and other wonders.
The pitcher plant’s special niche is getting nutrients from acid muck. It lures insects to the bottom of its barrel, and brews them like a French press.
“Carcasses in the bottom half of a pitcher are often packed as tightly as tobacco in a cigarette paper,” Jennifer Frick-Ruppert writes in her book, “Mountain Nature.”
Bog turtles—the four-inch-long carapace-wearers with Clemson-orange necks—are trying to survive under a protective law, but they’re still “a prized species in many animal black markets,” the Endangered Species Coalition remarks.
The good news is that bog turtles can be bred in captivity; and that the steep decline in bogs has been arrested and even reversed a bit.
In 2006, the Nature Conservancy began restoring the 15-acre McClure’s Bog in Etowah, Nathaniel Axtell reported in a Hendersonville “Times-News” article. “Its exact location is a closely guarded secret because it harbors … three species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act: swamp pink, mountain sweet pitcher plant and the bog turtle.”
In 2015, the Nature Conservancy helped create the Mountain Bogs National Wildlife Refuge in Ashe County. Its 39 acres “may eventually grow to 23,000 acres, depending on the willingness of landowners to sell,” the National Forest Service reports.
This issue has literally come home for me because I have a one-tenth-acre mountain bog in my backyard. It doesn’t have sphagnum moss or bog turtles, but it’s at the head of a creek, is always wet and never flooded, and is undisturbed by lawnmowers and other irritants.
We’re thinking of planting a buffer of appropriate shrubs around it.
For more information about Mountain Bogs Refuge, visit www.fws.gov/mountainbogs
You may remember the day the beavers came back. It had been August 16, 1993, according to a Citizen-Times article by Deanna Murray.
Park biologist Bambi Teague at the Julian Price Memorial Park had sounded the alarm.
“We’ve had some visitors complain about trails being muddy,” she’d said. And the beavers “could cause some trails to fall in.”
Moses Cone Estate, on the Parkway near Boone, and Blowing Rock Memorial Park were also being threatened by the beaver’s way.
Teague sided with the beavers, who bring back an earlier native environment, though bogs get flooded and old trees chewed.
In January 1995, WNC Alliance, now part of MountainTrue, presented a list of 98 “older forest sites” in the Pisgah National Forest for the Forest Service to protect from logging.
Just the previous year, the Forest Service had amended the first plan, a 1987 political hash, in order to reasonably save old forests, of which this region has an impressive legion, though they’re mostly wind-twisted or inaccessibly distant.
Today MountainTrue is participating in another rewrite, recommending that the Forest Service “require their staff to identify old growth forests when they’re designing timber sales and put them at the bottom of the priority lists,” Josh Kelly, MountainTrue’s Public Lands Biologist, says.
Theory became practice in April 2016 when MountainTrue notified the Forest Service that its Mossy Oak timber sale in Jackson County included one “unit,” or tract, that contained an oak forest older than Daniel Boone. It was saved.
No rest for the weary, though. Insects seem to have their own agendas, including the now infamous hemlock woolly adelgid; and the emerald ash borer, carried by out-of-state campers in firewood.
And, as of this moment, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed and sent to the Senate the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, introduced by Bruce Westerman (R-AR) with bi-partisan support. It intends to speed up and increase “forestry management” and remove fire hazards by easing protections against cutting and limiting litigation and public comment.
In 1993, an Asheville couple wrote a letter to the editor of the Citizen-Times about a chainsaw massacre on Murdock Ave.
Their backyard neighbor had built apartment buildings and “cut down virtually every tree on her side of the property line regardless of the condition of the tree,” they said. They wanted an enforceable tree ordinance.
Ashevillians love their trees. Just look at Google Earth maps, or drive around.
I have a dead willow in my yard that attracts roving tree-cutters who offer to help me neutralize the threat. Regretfully, I tell them, “We’re saving it for the woodpeckers.”
Dogs, hogs, coyotes, deer, bear and mussels all made noise in the waning decade of the 20th century. Red wolves sang a twilight howl.
They were numerous in this region in the 18th and 19th century. In 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission reported, there were only “135 red wolves in existence—115 in various captive facilities and 20 in the wild.”
“By the late 1960s,” Bob Satterwhite wrote in an Oct. 15, 1995 column, “only a small population of disease and parasite ridden animals remained, holed up in the marshes and bogs on the Louisiana and Texas border.”
Because these red wolves had begun, out of desperation, breeding with coyotes, the government captured 400, identified 17 purebreds and introduced them to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Dare County.
On Jan. 30, 1991, two mated pairs of red wolves were released in Cades Cove. They and their offspring struggled to survive amid threats from coyotes, parvovirus and humans.
In 1994, the N.C. State Assembly passed a law that permitted anyone to shoot a red wolf deemed “a nuisance.” “It’s just another damn dog, as far as I’m concerned,” Rep. John Brown of Wilkes County had stated.
“Dog” was the least damaging of the epithets pinned on the red wolf. Anti-wolf campaigners have included scientists Robert Wayne and John Gittleman who, in a July 1995 issue of “Scientific American,” determined that the red wolf was a coyote-gray wolf mutt.
Satterwhite called such claims “untruths and distortions.” There had been, he argued, a long-ago gray wolf ancestor that is now extinct. As to the red wolf’s scariness, not one has ever attacked a human. They’re shy.
In 1998, the Federal government snuffed the red wolf’s seven-year niche, defunded the Great Smokies reintroduction effort, and captured and deported survivors.
Yet, the WNC Nature Center has stepped up, breeding the red wolf in pens. On May 9, 2012, four pups were born and later transferred to the main exhibit area.