"As we plan for foot trails,
roads and a park office,
we want to put these in
places that won't harm
Linda Pearsall, National
n mountainous Transylvania County, rivers, waterfalls and rare plant species mark a rugged stretch of nearly 7,000 acres intended to become North Carolina’s first state park west of Asheville.
But before the first trail is blazed or the first road paved, state parks officials want to make sure that rare plants and rare plant populations characteristic of the Jocassee Gorges are not disturbed in the process.
Dr. Tom Wentworth, professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Botany Department, and former N.C. State graduate student Ross Phillips are among the scientists called on by the state’s Natural Heritage Program to identify the location of rare plant communities —groups of plant species uncommon in the landscape — within the park land.
The pristine Jocassee Gorges land in North and South Carolina was once owned by Duke Energy. In 1998, the state struck a deal to purchase nearly 10,000 acres of the land, with roughly 7,000 acres designated for a state park and the remaining 3,000 acres for gamelands. South Carolina purchased about 32,000 acres surrounding Lake Jocassee.
From July 1999 through December of last year, Wentworth and Phillips surveyed the flora of the land, then developed a computer model that could be used to locate additional places where rare plant communities might occur.
“The state parks officials have a blank slate in the Jocassee Gorges,” Wentworth said. “In deciding where to locate facilities, they want to be sensitive to the natural resources in the area. By knowing where the resources are, they can avoid and protect them.”
Using a classification of natural communities developed by the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, Wentworth and Phillips recognized the following as rare community types within the study area: Canada hemlock forest, montane cliff, rich cove forest, rocky bar, spray cliff, swamp forest bog complex and white pine forest.
Just reaching the gorges area was a feat. Wentworth found the trip from Raleigh always takes at least seven hours. Then only two dirt roads lead into the park land itself, requiring a four-wheel drive vehicle and a good pair of hiking boots for visitors to cover much ground.
“It’s a very hard area to get into, mostly restricted to foot travel,” he said.
Along with Wentworth and Phillips, the Natural Heritage Program study team included Dr. Heather Cheshire, N.C. State assistant professor of forestry, and graduate students Laura Bunyan and Frank Koch.
The team’s information about rare species in the gorges will be used in planning the park, said Linda Pearsall, head of the Natural Heritage Program.
“As we plan for foot trails, roads and a park office, we want to put these in places that won’t harm plant resources, but will give park rangers the chance to interpret and show them to the public,” Pearsall said.
Visitors to the new state park are likely to take a special interest in two of the rare natural communities that Wentworth and Phillips found: rich cove forests and spray cliffs.
Rich cove forests, which occur in protected valley bottoms, are species-rich in both canopy and understory. Because of their tall stature and rich herbaceous flora, they are among the most beautiful forests in eastern North America and are especially popular with hikers and photographers when their spring wildflowers are in full bloom. Rich cove forests are uncommon in the study area because they occur only in small pockets of unusually fertile soil. Several rare species grow in the rich cove forests of the Jocassee Gorges, including the butternut, a relative of the more common black walnut, and ginseng, prized by collectors for the medicinal plant trade. Both species are on North Carolina’s Watch List, which records uncommon species not officially classified as rare.
Spray cliffs near the area’s numerous waterfalls also support rare plant communities, which include populations of one Watch List fern, the Appalachian gametophyte. This unusual fern completes only part of its life cycle in the area and also is found in the tropics.
Rare plants growing on or near the spray cliffs of waterfalls are easily damaged by hikers scrambling on the steep, rocky slopes.
Dr. J. Dan Pittillo, a biology professor at Western Carolina University, and his graduate student, Mike Ivey, conducted a survey of rare plants in and around the park land. According to these researchers, hikers visiting one of the most popular waterfalls in the park risk damaging populations of the rock fir-clubmoss, grotto alumroot, Appalachian mock orange and dwarf filmy-fern, all rare or Watch List species.
Wentworth and Phillips, in conducting their survey, looked to several existing resources to identify where rare plant communities might be found. They turned to experts like Mike Schafale of the Natural Heritage Program, who had surveyed plant communities of the area. They looked at aerial photographs for geologic features such as rivers or ridges that could serve as likely places for specific types of vegetation.
Because the researchers also wished to study the more common natural communities of the region, they created a grid over a map of the park area, visiting geological points on this grid to collect data. While traveling from point to point, they also collected data on additional rare communities they discovered. Rugged terrain and bad weather ultimately restricted their sampling to 102 areas representing both rare and common plant communities.
After collecting data, the researchers used a computer model to predict where certain rare communities would occur. “We used a statistical procedure known as ‘discriminant analysis,’ which lets you take data of known occurrences and conditions and project where others might occur,” Wentworth said.
Some maps created by this model tend to over-predict the occurrences of rare communities. But given the difficulty of maneuvering the terrain, an over-prediction could be a helpful guide to ensure that no rare populations are overlooked in planning. However, such maps will have low accuracy for users seeking rare populations.
Other researchers have contributed to the information collected about the park’s natural resources. Surveys currently under way will document the rare animal populations and geological resources of the area. State parks planner Alan Eakes says having such information on hand will be a great help to the designer, who will soon begin to map locations for car campgrounds, picnic areas, hike-in camp sites, foot trails and overlooks, a visitors’ center and interpretive area with museum.
The plan will be at least a year in the making and then will be presented at public hearings. Each park facility will be ranked among other state parks capital projects and constructed as funds become available.
often are charged with conducting a survey of plant and animal populations,
but some do a better job than others, said Eakes. “This way, we’ve done
the surveys in-house, with support from N.C. State and other institutions.
We have a high level of confidence in what we’re giving the parks developer.”