31 volunteers and staff rallied to help the Smokies last Saturday, July 28. In a partnership with Nature Valley (the granola bar company) and the National Parks Conservation Association, several SAHC projects are underway at the protected Cataloochee Ranch (directly adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) to improve animal habitat, plant life and water quality.
On Saturday under a clear sky with beautiful views of the Plott Balsams, Mt. Pisgah, and the Smokies, volunteers improved an eroded section of popular trail mere meters from the border of Great Smoky Mountains Park. Fueled by camaraderie and an endless supply of Nature Valley granola bars, volunteers used shovels and trail tools to reshape a badly incised section of trail into a good slope to efficiently shed water instead of catching sediment and carrying it to the streams.
Volunteers also helped improve bird habitat adjacent to the park. Many migratory song birds, such as the Chestnut-Sided Warbler, Savannah Sparrow, and Field Sparrow, nest in open areas with a mix of forbs, grasses, shrubs, and scattered trees, called “early successional” habitat. They especially like the fuzzy edges found where fields and forests meet. This gradual blending of two habitat types is called an ecotone. Open fields and edge habitat used to flourish in the area due to the number of farms; however, more recently as the number of farmed fields decreases and development increases, early successional habitat is either maturing into forest or being converted into housing and commercial infrastructure. At high-elevations, their desired habitat type is even more difficult to find. So, on Saturday at 4,600 feet elevation, we created some of those fuzzy edges that birds love. Led by Chris Coxen, SAHC’s ecologist, volunteers sawed and lopped a selection of trees and shrubs between a pasture and section of forest to open up more sunlight, promoting the new growth of grasses and forbs.
The work portion of the day was followed by a program atop Hemphill Bald. Judy Coker, one of the family owners of Cataloochee Ranch, shared the history of the ranch and the story of their family’s decision to permanently protect their property, which was SAHC’s first conservation easement (1993).
SAHC staff then spoke about their current land protection efforts in the area. Hemphill Bald afforded a great view of many SAHC projects, including the 8,000 acre Waynesville Watershed (protected in 2005); the Plott Balsam conservation easement protecting the top of Plott Balsam Mountain (2003 and 2006); the Crawford Creek conservation easements at the base of Cold Mountain (2000); and the high ridgetop properties of one of SAHC’s primary farmland focus areas: Sandy Mush, Buncombe County.
In appreciation of a hugely successful day, SAHC sends a big thank you to our volunteers and our partners, Nature Valley and the National Parks Conservation Association!