Resource Management in the Smokies

It is hard to believe that I am fast approaching the final month of my internship here in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Although time has seemed to fly, the work which I have been fortunate to take part in here has been incredibly rewarding and has given me a whole new appreciation for all those involved in the stewardship of our National Parks.

Growing up in Minnesota, the stunning beauty and unmatched biodiversity I have experienced in these mountains has not disappointed for a second.  While splitting time interning for the park’s botanist and the vegetation management team I have been fortunate to be involved in a variety of projects which have taken me all over the Smokies.

At work I have been able to hone my GPS, plant identification, and data collection skills conducting high elevation rare plant monitoring while surrounded by some of the most spectacular views in The Smokies. Precise geographic and statistical data collected on the park’s remaining populations of rare plants enables researchers to assess the vitality these important species and helps ensure their continued protection. For example, I was recently reminded of the importance of our work while collecting geographic and percent cover data on a newly identified sedge which is endemic to the Smokies. It was our monitoring of this sedge’s limited habitat that likely prevented a large portion of the population from being dug up during upcoming NPS road maintenance.


Taking some GIS data on a population of rare large flowered purple fringe orchids (Plantanthera grandiflora) along the Appalachian Trail

Plantanthera grandiflora up close

Plantanthera grandiflora up close

Another rewarding project which I have been involved in is the park’s ongoing efforts to manage the invasive insect known as the hemlock wolly adelgid (HWA) which has devastated hemlock stands from Southeastern Canada to South Carolina. As one of the most common trees in the Smokies, hemlocks are extremely important ecologically and the park protects the largest stands of old-growth hemlocks left in the Eastern United States. By visiting conservation areas throughout the park to treat and monitor for the adelgid staff here have been able to keep numerous hemlock stands healthy in a variety of habitats.

View from Mout Cammerer near a Hemlock conservation area in the northeast corner of the park

View from Mt. Cammerer near a hemlock conservation area in the northeast corner of the park

There are a number of tools which have proven effective in managing HWA including sprayed surface treatments, insecticide, and biocontrol agents. Most often, I have been able to aid in treating individual backcountry trees by applying insecticides to soil around the base of hemlock trees throughout the park.  Applied chemical is absorbed through root systems and can provide individual trees with years of defense against the adelgid.  Currently over 100,000 of the park’s hemlocks have been successfully treated and protected in this way by vegetation management staff.

Despite its effectiveness the chemical treatment of individual trees is not a practical means of protection for the millions of untreated backcountry hemlocks due to the high cost associated with application. On the bright side, the park is currently using two using predator beetles which eat only hemlock adelgids in attempts to help maintain an ecological balance between insects and hemlock decline on a landscape level. Although promising, biological control will take time. Meanwhile, the importance of our conservation work is highlighted for me each time I enter a beautiful preserved old-growth stand or catch a view of the thousands of already dead hemlocks which dot the otherwise pure green slopes of the Smokies.

Healthy hemlocks like this are becoming increasingly rare throughout the Smokies

Healthy hemlocks like this are becoming increasingly rare throughout the Smokies and surrounding area

On days where I am not killing exotic plants, saving hemlock trees, or surveying rare species I have been involved in the Cades Cove field restoration efforts. This project more than any other has highlighted for me how extremely complex resource management within the National Park Service can be especially when combining both natural and cultural elements of stewardship.

In short, the Cades Cove historic district is a amazingly beautiful limestone basin surrounded entirely by mountains. With over 2 million tourists a year, the Cove is easily the most visited area within the Smokies, and a 10 mile loop road allows visitors to easily take in the stunning views. Cades Cove was permanently settled by Europeans as a farming community in 1818 and the valley remained inhabited until the Park’s creation in 1934. The NPS has chosen to preserve many of the unique early historic structures in the Cove for education and visitor enjoyment while ensuring that the open pastoral nature of the land’s settlement era is maintained.

View from the middle of Cades Cove

View from the middle of Cades Cove

In the past, the NPS managed Cades Cove under special use permits which allowed for large hay and cattle grazing operations throughout the Cove in order to prevent former farm fields from reverting to forest. Historically, large amounts of cattle were never present within the Cove and the huge expanses of pasture and hayfields lead to an unintended “golf course look.”  Furthermore, the environmental quality of Cades Cove was significantly degraded through permittee use and NPS actions which drained wetlands, straightened stream banks, and introduced non-native grasses to control erosion, and benefit permittees. Fortunately, in 2000 the expiration of the last cattle permit provided an opportunity for resource managers at the park to experiment with new ways of managing this district which will not only better depict desired pioneer pastoral scene but provide quality habitat for the park’s native species in an ecologically sustainable manner.

Through the restoration of wetlands and stream banks, removal of exotic grasses and the prescribed burning of Cove fields resource managers hope to encourage the establishment of native meadow species within the former hay and cattle leases. Native meadows will not only depict the pioneer agricultural scene more accurately than past methods, but will support native species of grassland flora which are now rare in the park. In turn it is expected that restored native meadows will support many more species of native vertebrate and invertebrates.

Personally, I have been able to participate in the park’s cultivation and collection of native plant seed within several designated increase and restoration fields. To ensure that local genotypes are preserved only native seed found within the Cove has been utilized and collected for cultivation and use in small restoration plantings over past several springs (it is apparent that many native grass species were present in parts of the Cove long before European settlement). While restoration efforts are still in the “interim stages,” I have helped to write and compile a draft of the “desired future conditions for Cades Cove” which details numerous planned aspects for comprehensive field management and restoration. Hopefully, this work will help form the basis of a long-term management plan for these fields which will provide protection and enhancement of this unique area for years to come.

Collecting some mountain mint seed from an increase field to be used in restoration planting next spring

Collecting some Mountain Mint seed (Pyscnanthemum muticum) from an increase field to be used in restoration planting next spring

Yours truly triumphantly returning with a large bag of Wide-leaved Sunflower (Helianthus decapetalus) Seed

Yours truly triumphantly returning with a large bag of Swamp Sunflower seed (Helianthus angustifolius)

Former cattle pasture in Cades Cove now a restored native meadow dominated by Big Bluestem (Andropagon gerardis)

Former cattle pasture in Cades Cove now a restored native meadow dominated by Big Bluestem (Andropagon gerardis)

The important monitoring, treatment and research I have been involved in here has been extremely rewarding, educational and simply a lot of fun. I feel very fortunate that I have been able to have this experience and cannot wait to be involved in more exciting work here in the Great Smoky Mountains during the last month of my internship!

With 100+ species of native trees in the Smokies (more than any other park) I'm currently looking forward to a few more weeks of amazing fall colors.

With 100+ species of native trees in the Smokies (more than any other park) I'm currently looking forward to a couple more weeks of amazing fall colors.

Sunset Near Newfound Gap

Sunset near Newfound Gap

Best of luck to everyone else in their internships!

– Mike Wardwell, NPS Great Smoky Mountains, Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

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