Thriving After Fire – Rare plants and the biologists who search for them

Fire Adapted Hudsonia montana, mountain goldenheather, thrives after wildfires on Shortoff Mountain in the Grandfather Ranger District.  Cooperation between the US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Nature Conservancy helps document their persistence following spring fires.  

Three liters of water barely made a dent in my thirst the first hot September day of monitoring rare plants on Shortoff Mountain.  So, the second day I brought 4 liters and an umbrella to create my own shade.  As we walked in silence, dripping with sweat, back down to the truck, my pants were shredded at both knees from crawling through thorny brush and my umbrella was broken on one side.   But I was smiling.

Earlier that day we had spent hours walking near the edge of Shortoff Mountain in Grandfather Ranger District looking for – and finding in abundance – Hudsonia montana.  This scrubby little plant, commonly known as mountain golden heather, clings to the rocks almost as close to the edge of a cliff as one can get.  It’s a dare devil plant sending USFS botanist, Gary Kaufman, into billy-goat mode as he very carefully picks his way up the cliff side counting plants.

Our goal was simple: use the maps created previous years to visit the areas on Shortoff mountain known to have the golden heather, count the patches of plants using a size-class system and help estimate their current numbers.  But why do this now, on a hot September day when summer seems never ending?  Because the plants were burned earlier this year by wildfires and biologists charged with protecting this federally listed species need to know the impacts of the fire.

Shortoff mountain has burned on average at least once every decade for hundreds of years.  It’s prominent rock outcrops, Table Mountain pine, and bunchgrasses are adapted to the frequent lightning-ignited fires.  The little plant we were looking for, Hudsonia, is no different.  It thrives in this fire adapted ecosystem and has found its niche, only growing in two counties in North Carolina.  In past years there have been dramatic increases in the plants post-fire.  It’s kind of like how cutting your grass with a lawn mower helps the grass grow back thicker.  Except in this case, Hudsonia grows back after fire and creeps further into and over neighboring rocks and mossy areas.

Once we got back to the truck the second day, botanists from the USFS and US Fish and Wildlife Service planned to come back for a third day to sample a few more areas of plants.  What we had seen so far was promising, as expected the Hudsonia as well as other fire adapted plants like little bluestem were growing well.  I hope you enjoy this short video showing the Hudsonia and the plants on Shortoff thriving after the spring wildfire.

 

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Wild South and Linville Volunteers Tackle Babel Tower Trail

This summer Wild South and Linville Area Volunteers, led by partner Kevin Massey, are hard at work doing some heavy maintenance on the Babel Tower trail in the Linville Gorge Wilderness. Helped out by an agreement with Wild South under the Grandfather Restoration Project, the crew is able to do some much needed work on one of the most popular trails within the Wilderness area.

Volunteers show off stone cribbing on the Babel Tower trail

Volunteers show off stone cribbing on the Babel Tower trail

Crews will be working hard out in the field this summer adding check dams and repairing drainage on steep sections of the trail, adding stone cribbing on heavily eroding sections, redefining the main trail and decommissioning user-created trails near the tower that are causing erosion into Linville River. This is one great example of partnerships in the Linville area and we are lucky to have an amazing group of partners and community volunteers who can steward the Linville Gorge Wilderness! Keep track of the progress on the Linville Gorge Maps blog at www.linvillegorgemaps.org.

Kevin’s great work in the Gorge was also recently highlighted in the Asheville Citizen Times article “Watching out over wild, picturesque Linville Gorge“.

Fire Learning Trail Launches

Visiting Linville Gorge on the Grandfather Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest it is hard not to notice the signs of fire. From the iconic wind-whipped table mountain pines gripping the cliffs at the edge of the gorge, to the characteristic clear views, fire has shaped Linville from the beginning.

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Partnering with The Nature Conservancy, The Fire Learning Network, and the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists, the Grandfather Ranger District has installed a series of informational signs along Old NC 105 on the west rim of Linville Gorge to share with the public information about fire safety, fire history, fire ecology, and firefighting. Visitors starting at the Information Cabin at the north end of Old NC 105 can visit the signs by driving south along the Fire Learning Trail as they take in the sights of the area.

The signs are accompanied by a series of pod casts featuring radio-style interviews with local fire managers that are available on iTunes (search: Fire Learning Trail) or on CDs distributed free of charge at the Linville Information Cabin.

The Fire Learning Trail is part of an effort to increase education on the history of the Grandfather Ranger District and the forces of nature that have shaped the forests. Specialists from The Nature Conservancy and the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists were on hand at the Linville Gorge Spring Celebration last weekend to talk to the public about this exciting new outreach effort.

GUEST POST: SAWS Helps Restore Trails in Linville Gorge

Guest Post by Brenna Irrer, Program Manager, Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards

The mountains of western North Carolina are full of exciting natural features, and can provide endless opportunities for education and entertainment. For most people, all they need to access these features is a suitable trail. While any sort of trail may do, a trail that is usable in a variety of conditions and will last for years can help people not only continue to enjoy these opportunities, but to help them show others in the future. Fortunately, trails can be modified over time, fixing a problem as it arises, or improving it to better serve its users.

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SAWS Trail Crew Member works to improve the Shortoff Trail

One such trail is the Shortoff trail in Linville Gorge. This trail also serves as a part of the Mountains to Sea trail. The Shortoff trail runs almost exclusively along ridges, down into gaps, and back up again, allowing for stunning views, changes in trailside ecology, and physical exercise. Because the trail runs along the ridge, portions of it are steep and prone to erosion from water runoff. Recently, Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) spent nine days working along the trail to mitigate these problems. Working from Chimney Gap and heading south, drainage features were built into the trail to prevent water from staying on the trail, causing heavy erosion and increasing the potential for insurmountable damage. SAWS worked up to the top of Shortoff mountain, installing a variety of drainage features and also brushing spots that had made hiking difficult.

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Many areas along the Shortoff trail have been subject to wild fires in the last decade. While this allows for abundant new growth, in the short term erosion along the trail is accelerated without a tree canopy above it. While the canopy will eventually grow back, the trail must be stabilized in the meantime. The work that Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards has done along the Shortoff trail will help keep this trail serviceable for hikers now and in the future.

Fire and Invasives: The Paulownia Problem

It is well understood that wildfires can promote invasive species — where wildfires burn with high intensities, fire removes the duff and litter layer, allowing invasive species that thrive on bare soil to germinate. One of the biggest invasive culprits in this area is Paulownia tomentosa (princess tree). One Paulownia tree is capable of producing twenty million seeds per year, which are easily carried by wind and water. Once the seeds establish in bare soil, the seedlings can grow to a height of 10-ft in a single season.

With the Table Rock Wildfire that burned in the Linville Gorge last fall, monitoring and treating invasive species (including Paulownia) was identified as the top priority in the Forest Service’s response post-fire. As part of the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) for the Table Rock Fire resource values impacted by the fire were identified, and emergency funds were requested to treat invasive plant species. BAER is an emergency risk management tool that allows the Forest Service to respond to post-wildfire conditions that would destabilize or degrade the burned lands. Using BAER authority, the Forest Services and its partners have been monitoring Paulownia, treating infestations outside the wilderness boundary, and hand-pulling along trails within the wilderness.

Paulownia seedlings carpet the forest in areas where the Table Rock fire burned with high intensity near Chimney Gap

Paulownia seedlings carpet the forest in areas where the Table Rock fire burned with high intensity near Chimney Gap (photo by Kayah Gaydish)

Starting in August, our partners tasked with monitoring and treating Paulownia noted that there was an explosion of seedlings both inside and outside the wilderness boundary. Ben Prater and Kayah Gaydish of WildSouth, who have been leading the treatment efforts in partnership with the Forest Service, invited me out last week to see this firsthand (and put me to work to help treat the seedlings). I was amazed by the sheer number of seedlings coming up — in areas the forest is carpeted with young Paulownia. In inspecting the infestation, we could see that Paulownia occurs in large numbers only where the fire burned with high intensities. The Forest Service has mapped these areas, and luckily they only cover 8-acres (about 1/2 of a percent of the total fire area). In these areas, total canopy loss and the removal of all duff and litter provides the perfect environment for Paulownia — and thus these areas are the priority areas for treatment.

Ben Prater, Director of Conservation at Wild South, treats Paulownia seedlings with herbicide outside the wilderness near Chimney Gap

Ben Prater, Director of Conservation at Wild South, treats Paulownia seedlings with herbicide outside the wilderness near Chimney Gap

While there are some areas that burned with high-intensity outside the wilderness, much of this area lies within the wilderness boundary. Although we can treat those Paulownia seedlings that are outside the wilderness with herbicide, there is no authority to use herbicide within the wilderness. In fact, there is not even authority to hand-pull Paulownia. Without any methods to remove Paulownia from the wilderness, this invasive species would threaten native plant communities and degrade wilderness character.

In response to the infestation, the Forest Service is pursuing additional funding through BAER and authority to hand-pull Paulownia within the wilderness boundary through an Minimum Requirements Decision Guide (MRDG) and use of a Categorical Exclusion under NEPA. The MRDG, which was signed today, is a tool to assist wilderness managers in making appropriate decisions in wilderness. National Forest staff are currently gathering information to prepare a Categorical Exclusion to consider a timely and effective route to control the spread of the infestation. Once the Categorical Exclusion is signed, we will be organizing a broad-scale volunteer effort to get those Paulownia seedlings out before the leaves fall off and the sprouts become hard to identify.

So, as partners I ask you to stay tuned, because we could use all the help we can get in this time-sensitive effort! This will be a great opportunity to work together to help save the Linville Gorge, which holds a special place in all our hearts, from this aggressive invasive species.

Silver Lining Seen in Linville Gorge Wildfire

The Grandfather Restoration Project made an appearance in the Asheville, NC newspaper, The Citizen Times, for a follow up story on the Table Rock Wildfire that burned in the Linville Gorge Wilderness last November. The article was featured on the front page of the Sunday Edition of the newspaper.

Grandfather Restoration Project Coordinator Lisa Jennings inspects new growth 8 months after the Table Rock wildfire

Grandfather Restoration Project Coordinator Lisa Jennings inspects new growth 8 months after the Table Rock wildfire

The article provides a look at the aftermath of the Table Rock wildfire, and discusses the importance of fire within the Linville Gorge Wilderness area. It provides a well-rounded look at the subject, interviewing local hikers and activists as well as ecologists, and highlights the resiliency of the fire-adapted ecosystems.

Jennings thinks November’s Linville Gorge blaze offers a lesson on the benefits of fire in some ecosystems. “Hopefully it will change some people’s views about fire on the landscape.”

Read the full article on the newspaper’s website here: Silver Lining Seen in Linville Gorge Wildfire

Rising from the ashes: Table Rock wildfire stimulates plant growth

The Grandfather Restoration Project recently teamed up with a local journalist for the Morganton, NC newspaper, The News Herald, for a follow up story on the Table Rock Wildfire that burned in the Linville Gorge Wilderness last November.

Lisa Jennings inspects herbaceous growth 7 month after the Table Rock Wildfire (photo by Tyler Johnson, The News Herald)

Grandfather Restoration Project Coordinator, Lisa Jennings inspects herbaceous growth 7 month after the Table Rock Wildfire (photo by Tyler Johnson, The News Herald)

The article highlights the beneficial effects of fire and the need for applying prescribed fire to restore the fire-adapted communities in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area.

“Because there is less shrub coverage (following fires), there is a lot more sunlight coming in and that will allow more herbaceous growth and the sun’s energy to reach the ground level,” Josh Kelly of Western North Carolina Alliance said. “Most of the diversity in our temperate forest is herbaceous. We have 130 species of trees in this area, but we also have 1,500 species of herbaceous plants.”

View the article on the newspaper’s website here: Rising from the ashes: Table Rock wildfire stimulates plant growth