The Smoky Mountains and the threats to its biodiversity

Rosebay Rhododendron (Rhododendron Maximum)
Rosebay Rhododendron (Rhododendron Maximum)

People are often under the mistaken impression that national parks are thriving healthy ecosystems, pristine and just as the Earth made them. It just isn’t so.

The Smokies look beautiful and special because they are special. But the Smokies have had a hard time. The biodiversity of the region is threatened.

Threats to Biodiversity

The Smoky Mountains are the southern most limit for many northern species.

The mild climate, abundant precipitation and difference in elevations, allows for a large number of native species.

There are 135 species of trees, 1,500 species of flowering plants, 50 species of mammals, 200 species of birds, 80 species of reptiles and amphibians, 70 species of fish and 22 species of salamanders.

The Timber-harvested Land

In the Smokies, nearly 65% of the land was cut for timber before the national park was established. Only about 35.9%  of its area is uncut forest lands, but that is still the largest track of virgin forest in the eastern United States.

unknown mushroom (fungi)
unknown mushroom (fungi)

Eighty years after the timber was harvested, 50% of the ground flora species found in virgin forest are missing from the harvested area. Soil layer in logged forest has 50% less moisture than undisturbed forests. The salamander populations, which require moist soil habitats,  may require up to 120 years to recover from logging, which removed their preferred places to live.

Threats to the Spruce-Fir Forest

The Spruce-Fir forest is the predominant forest type at high elevations in the Smoky Mountains. This forest type covers 13, 000 acres or 2% of the park area.

The dominant trees species are Red Spruce and Fraser Fir.  The Fraser Fir grows at the highest elevations. It is endemic (only occurs) in North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Acid rain, climate change, invasive plants and animals, threaten the Spruce-Fir forest. Twenty percent of the flora in the national park is non-native. And native plants are key to a healthy ecosystem. (why native plants are important).

Half of the flowering dogwoods have died from dogwood anthracnose, an introduced fungus that attacks the leaves and branches and forms cankers and eventually kills the tree. And the American Chestnut Tree was killed off in the 1920s.

rocky outcropping on Clingman's Dome with dead Fraser Firs
Rocky outcropping on Clingman's Dome with dead Fraser Firs

The Fraser Fir  tree which is commercially grown as a Christmas tree, may soon be expiated or extinct in its natural habitats. A tiny European insect, the Balsam woolly adelgid, introduced around 1900, infests this tree. While feeding, it injects its saliva, containing a chemical into the tree. In defense the tree ends up cutting off its ability to absorb nutrients until it weakens and dies.

The Fraser Fir accounts for half the trees at the higher elevations. Just take a look at this photo to see how few, mature Fraser Firs are left at the Smokies highest point, Clingman’s Dome.

dead Fraser Fir trees at Clingman's Dome, Smoky Mountains N.P.
dead Fraser Fir trees at Clingman's Dome, Smoky Mountains N.P.

What would it take?

The natural places of this continent are keeping up appearances. They look great to the untrained eye. But knowing which native plants and animals should occur in a place and why they aren’t there reveals a different story.

What will it take to truly restore the land? Well, the Earth could take matters into her own hands, and do something that the rest of us, probably won’t like.

We could stop the importing of non-native plants except for food crops. Diseases and insects often stowaway on imported plants. We could create a vast army of formerly unemployed workers to remove invasive plant species and plant native ones.

Hey, it could happen. Just let it get bad enough or scary enough, and we could see changes we couldn’t imagine in our most far-out fantasies.

Many people see environmental legislation as a threat to their ability to “do whatever they want, whenever they want to whomever they want”. And they fight for what they want.

But, the rest of us have rights, too. Native animals have the right to live in the same places their ancestors lived in for thousands of years and so do us humans. We must continue to fight, too.

So, if you have any ideas to share with the rest of the eco-warriors, please share. Non-violent methods, please.

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