TrekEast Blog 28 Chimney Rock State Park and Surrounds, NC

Entering a Salamander Stronghold

April 28-29, 2011
 
A keen naturalist, led blindfolded into the Southern Appalachians, might discern where she was by the trees and salamanders, even if not by the soaring topography. The Southern Appalachians, into which I’m now winding my way upward, on foot and by bike, have a plant diversity that my northern naturalist friends might envy, and an amphibian diversity that would befuddle them.
 
This great biodiversity stems from the abundance of microclimates and aspects and substrates, with great elevation gradients, cliffs, boulder fields and differing soils. The Southern Appalachians’ diversity comes also from its geological history as a refuge for northern species that migrated south with the last ice age, then stayed – and who can blame these early snowbirds, or flowers, really, for it is so lovely down here!
 
The South Mountains were tentatively Appalachian, still partly Piedmont. Chimney Rock mountains, higher and farther west, are absolutely Appalachian. Chimney Rock State Park itself is a bit of a tourist trap, unfortunately, sitting just south of fake lake Lure, with its gaudy mansions on surrounding hills; but the setting really is sublime, and once away from the main drive and the famous columnar rock formation, Chimney Rock is good wild habitat. Moreover, it is a key forest block in a wildlands network that The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and other conservationists are piecing back together.
 
Two fine young conservationists from TNC, Bethany Lund and Jacqueline Bilello, gave me a tour of the Conservancy’s Bat Cave and Rumbling Bald Preserves. Jackie noted that the Chimney Rock area is really a huge amphitheater of mountain faces, with cliffs and steep slopes facing all directions, creating microclimates for diverse plant species. The area is liberally decorated with seeps and rivulets and down logs and damp rocky recesses, all good for the dozens of salamander species who live here. Bethany and Jackie assured me the bats here are still free of white-nose syndrome, which is devastating bat populations in many eastern states. (In my home region of the Adirondacks, this exotic fungus, likely first brought to a commercial cavern near Albany on the boots of a tourist who had been in an infected cave in Europe, has reduced some bat populations by 90% -- a biological meltdown that the Center for Biological Diversity is trying to arrest. (See www.biologicaldiversity.org.) The bat caves here are deep fissures in the jumbled rock underlying the great forest, and The Nature Conservancy has rightly closed off access to the caves to reduce chances of white-nose infection.
 
The jumbled fissured rock is what gave name to the next preserve we visited, Rumbling Bald. Apparently, when big rocks underground in the mountain shift, people down below can hear the rumble. Nature Conservancy’s Rumbling Bald Preserve is intended to become part of the state’s Chimney Rock Park, but already it is a draw to hikers and sightseers, for it offers panoramic views from atop Eagle Rock. Here I got my clearest vista yet of the southern mountains, and I’d offer a mixed view: The scenery is gorgeous, forest and mountain and rock as far west and north as the eye can see; but back to the east, especially around “Lake” Lure, many roads and houses. Plus, gallingly, houses, driveways, and communications towers have been punched into and onto some otherwise unspoiled mountainsides and even mountain tops. I am again reminded how fortunate I am to live in New York’s Adirondack Park, where most of the High Peaks are protected as Forest Preserve, and zoning on surrounding private lands usually prevents the worst sorts of insults to natural beauty. Still, the Chimney Rock area is lovely and vital to countless animals and plants, and conservationists are working hard to keep it that way.
 
Which reminds me to mention, Bethany and Jackie are Americorps volunteers, and among several outstanding young conservationists (including Daniel Marbury and Will James back in northern Alabama) I’ve met whose good work has been made possible by this important federal program.  Another thing to tell Congress (along with full appropriations for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and vigorous enforcement of the Endangered Species Act) is to keep intact the Americorps program, which some of the reactionary new senators and representatives want to slash.
 
Among the wildlife stories Bethany and Jackie told me is about how flying squirrels are another animal for which habitat connections are vital. Flying squirrels, as you know, do not truly fly but rather glide, from tree to tree.  If the forest is broken by major development, the gaps become too big for flying squirrels to cross.
 
 
To close our Chimney Rock visit, a tribute to its late great benefactor, Margaret Flinsch, is due: I had never before heard of this heroic conservationist; but reportedly, she is the individual whose vision and generosity had the most to do with protecting lands around Chimney Rock.   Among other good deeds, she donated to The Nature Conservancy the few hundred acres that became Bat Cave Preserve. David Ray, who now heads TNC’s programs in this area and is a visionary himself, provided the link below for readers interested in learning more about this wildlands philanthropist. Margaret Flinsch lived a good full life devoted to Nature, and passed away in mid April at age 103.
 
For the Wild,
John
 
 
 
 
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