Eight acres on the south side of Sugar Mountain in western North Carolina, remain in my family from the first permanent Scotch-Irish (and Welsh) settlement of the mountain by my ancestor Martin Banner and his brothers in 1848. Our family, as well as our adjacent relatives, retain most of the land in its natural state of forest and streams. As a result the biodiversity of the land remains such that 13 species of salamander can be found on it, enough for me to complete a doctoral dissertation on their communities. (Photo of salamander on tree -Plethodon jordani). This homestead remains our connection to the natural and cultural history of one of the most beautiful regions in the United States, the southern Blue Ridge mountains.
The forces threatening this and other southern Appalachian ecosystems include local factors such as agriculture (including the heavy pesticide use in the numerous Christmas tree farms in the region), cattle ranching, land development, and road widening. Each of these four factors has been debated among the residents (including my extended family) with the continuance of tree farms and cattle, but no development or road widening on our property. Regional scale factors include invasive species, acid rain, and climate change. The wooly adelgid has degraded hemlock and fir forests, but the intact character of much of the area has resisted many of the invasives that prosper along forest edges. A long history of acid rain, even after the reductions following the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, has also had deleterious effects, especially on the high-elevation spruce fir forests. Especially concerning for our 4600-foot-high paradise is climate change factors that threaten to push the cold water habitats of our salamanders off the top of the mountain, so that they have nowhere to go.
As stewards of our land, and advocates of the greater highlands ecosystem, we ask everyone to fight the fragmentation of the natural forests from tree farming, resort development, and road building. The state of North Carolina courageously passed the Mountain Ridge Protection Act of 1983 after suffering construction of a 10-story condominium that cut the top off Sugar Mountain. The political climate in North Carolina has regressed since that time, so citizens need to continue to advocate for protection of mountain vistas and ecosystems. Citizens also need to act themselves and hold politicians accountable to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that will devastate even the most “protected” highland habitats when they become too warm.
Take-a-way: There is a lot of work that needs to be done in all parts of our country.