Saving Our Bald Spots

Once maintained by mammoths, mastodons, and other Ice Age herbivores, and later tended by domestic grazers, the southern Appalachians’ odd treeless summits afford a peerless view—of both the past and the future.

by T. Edward Nickens

The route to grassy ridge takes a dogleg southbound turn off the Appalachian Trail and then heads straight for the sky. I loosen the shoulder straps on my pack and begin my climb into one of the Southeast’s stickiest ecological riddles. ¶ Grassy Ridge is a high spur along Roan Mountain, whose craggy ridgeline, arched 3,000 feet over its valley floor, scribes the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina. For the next few hours I dance across the roof of the world, striding through dewy meadows of hair grass and a host of sedges. Rhododendrons and azaleas stud the open fields. Rocky outcrops lie like the bleached backbones of fallen giants. The view takes in a vast sweep of Appalachian forests. In all directions, mountain after mountain falls away in vernal folds, like endless ocean swells. I can see woodlands that boast nearly as many species of trees as in all of Europe. But atop Grassy Ridge itself, there isn’t a tree worth mentioning.

Welcome to the curious subalpine meadows called southern Appalachian balds. These floral wonderlands are a trove of plant diversity. They are also an enigma, with a pedigree stretching back to the Pleistocene. And land managers are trying everything from hand pruners to African cattle to preserve these landscapes.

From northern Georgia to southwestern Virginia, there are scores of treeless peaks sprinkled along the Appalachian chain. In places, these balds are expansive, measured in the hundreds of acres. Elsewhere they are tiny summit caps. Some 90, including Grassy Ridge, are cloaked in a sward of grasses and sedges. These so-called grass balds are especially rich in botanical finds. On the Roan balds alone, 27 plant species are recognized as threatened, endangered, or sensitive. Many are normally found in colder, northern climes. You’d have to travel to Ontario, Quebec, or Newfoundland to find significant populations of green alder, bronze sedge, and greenland sandwort, but on the Roan highlands they thrive. “Those plants are extreme boreal disjuncts,” says David Danley, a botanist for North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest. And they attract unusual animals as well. Green alder provides nesting habitat for the uncommon alder flycatcher, while another cold-climate holdover, three-toothed cinquefoil, has attracted wintering populations of snow buntings.

If the botanical glory of the balds is undisputed, the same can’t be said for their origins. For scientists, the task of separating balds fact from fancy has serious consequences for some of the most beloved landscapes of the southern Appalachians. Are balds natural in origin? Or are they the remains of pasture and paddock, cleared by Native Americans or white settlers? Nearly half of all known balds have become forested since their original documentation. Should those remaining be preserved, and if so, which ones? And by what means?

Contradictory origin theories “form a long-running gentleman’s argument, a spectrum between opposite poles,” explains Danley. On one end is the supposition that balds were cleared by human hands and have been maintained by domestic livestock. Indeed, many balds are clearly old pastures, fire-tower clearings, or open country created by intensive logging. Others, though, boast rare plants found in few other habitats, and argue for a more natural origin. Numerous theories have surfaced over the years, but many land managers within state and federal agencies are warming up to a theory that pieces together Ice Age climate and prehistoric fauna.

Peter D. Weigl, an ecologist at Wake Forest University, is a leading proponent of the idea that balds are the visible remains of an animal-plant relationship thousands of years old. Weigl has worked on the Roan highlands for nearly 40 years, but it was his studies of the relationships between climatic and vegetative history in Africa and Asia that prompted him to reconsider the balds of the southern Appalachians. “I’d seen how large grazers maintained certain landscapes in Africa,” he says. “Many people interested in plants tend to think of animals as a threat, but I started to notice certain patterns about the way plant cover has changed on the Roan balds.” In many places, shrubs and trees had invaded the edges of the Roan balds, nibbling away at the open meadows. Then, in 1988, a former student brought Weigl the tooth of a Pleistocene tapir, a small rhinolike animal once found in western North Carolina. The pieces started falling into place.

Here’s how Weigl works it out: During the most recent ice age, the brutal climate forced trees off the high summits of the southern Appalachians, replacing forest with semi-tundra and open grasslands. These openings would have attracted the large herbivores of the Pleistocene, for which there is plenty of evidence. Excavations of two mountain sites in Virginia and Tennessee, for example, have uncovered the remains of ox-size ground sloths, early horses, caribou, bison, stag moose, musk oxen, mammoths, mastodons, and tapirs—all of which would have grazed and browsed on the balds’ lush grasses and sedges.

Then, some 10,000 years ago, most of those big grazers vanished. The eastern subspecies of elk held on, along with bison, until they were extirpated by white settlers. That would have been the end of the story for southern Appalachian balds had not the settlers set out their own cattle, goats, pigs, and sheep. Until recent decades those domestic livestock maintained the open aspect of an ancient ecological process. But widespread grazing no longer occurs in the southern Appala-chians, and the woods are moving in.

“For the balds that predate European settlement,” agrees Peter S. White, director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, “that’s a workable scenario. Those balds could be remnants of a community maintained by elk and other grazers 5,000 years ago, which were remnants of communities that existed in the warmest days after the last ice age.”

This is the theory U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists use to manage these balds. In 1980 scientists warned that most of the remaining balds would disappear by the end of the century, taken over by shrubs and trees. “It’s exactly like a fallow pasture that eventually reverts to forest,” says Fish and Wildlife biologist Nora Murdock. “The native grazers have gone extinct, so now we are dealing with an unnatural kind of plant community. These balds would not be disappearing if they were intact, functional ecosystems complete with their native grazers.”

Dismayed hikers and plant lovers can attest to the changes. Along the Roan, several balds have vanished under hawthorn during the past 15 years. It’s much the same story in the odd dozen Great Smokies balds now suffocating under greenbrier, smilax, and blackberry. The famed Spence Field and Russell Field are still open, but ranks of serviceberry, red oak, and beech are lapping at the margins. In 1983 the National Park Service decided to concentrate on maintaining Gregory and Andrews balds, the least influenced by humans. The other Smokies balds will likely grow over.

Elsewhere, maintaining balds is a Sisyphean task. Employing livestock breeds that target woody shrubs and fast-growing invaders such as blackberry, land managers have had limited success. In the early 1990s a three-year U.S. Forest Service experiment with goats on Round Bald near the Roan proved successful, but once funding vanished, so did the goats. For four years African long-horned cattle have grazed the balds on Hump Mountain, while on the Nature Conservancy’s Big Yellow Mountain preserve, a grassy peak neighboring the Roan, livestock grazing has been a primary conservation focus. And local horse groups engage small herds of wild ponies to maintain 1,500 acres of grassy balds in Virginia’s Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.

“Many of these efforts have been cobbled together from public and private sources,” says Judy Murray, of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. In the past 12 years volunteers from the conservancy have logged nearly 5,000 hours hand-pruning the Roan balds and others. Youth offenders from the North Carolina Department of Corrections have cleared shrubs on Round Bald. The Appalachian Trail Conference has paid for large tract mowers and a small hydraulic tractor that runs on Kevlar tank treads to avoid compacting balds soils.

It’s a poor substitute for herds of Pleistocene peccaries. But to many, the balds simply must be saved. “Lose the balds,” warns Weigl, “and we’d lose rare plants, certainly, and animals we don’t even know about yet. But we’d also lose a sense of history, a connection that has much to say about the complex relationships between plants and animals and climate that have defined much of our landscape.”

A glimpse of the past—that seems as imperiled as any lily or sedge. Near the peak of Grassy Ridge’s spare noggin, I pitch a tarp over a thick mat of oat grass and pull out stove, water bottle, the makings of dinner. I watch the late light lick at Grandfather Mountain, and steep in a powerful brew of altitude and exposure.

The market for mountaintop lookouts is thin these days, but not so the need for places that help our spirits soar. And not so the need for open, sunny glades where rare mountain avens, Bicknell’s rock rose, and Gray’s lily thrive. The origins of southern Appalachian balds may never be completely explained, but from the top of Grassy Ridge one thing is for certain: The future of those that remain is wholly in our hands.

T. Edward Nickens wrote “Insect Opera” in the May-June 2000 Audubon.


To read these articles, buy the May-June 2002 issue of Audubon.

© 2002  NASI

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Not surprisingly for an area so rich in biodiversity, Roan Mountain has been identified by Audubon North Carolina as an Important Bird Area (IBA). Included in its more than 100 species of birds—among them the saw-whet owl and the snow bunting—are 75 species of neotropical migrants that winter in the Roan’s forests, and 25 species that breed in the Roan highlands. To support Audubon North Carolina’s IBA program, call 910-798-8376, e-mail wgolder@Audubon.org, or go to www.audubon.org/bird/iba/nc.html.

The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy is dedicated to protecting the Roan highlands in Tennessee and North Carolina. For volunteer opportunities, call 828-253-0095, e-mail southapps@ioa.com, or log on to www.appalachian.org.

In spring and fall, Friends of Roan Mountain offers an array of educational programs led by naturalists, authors, and photographers. For information, contact Gary Barrigar (423-543-7576; barrigar@chartertn.net) or Jennifer Bauer (423-772-4772; highlandlady@naxs.net), or go to www.etsu.edu/biology/roan-mtn/. For more information about visiting Roan Mountain State Park, call 800-250-8620, e-mail vdyer@mail.state.tn.us, or go to www.tn.us/environment/parks/roanmtn/.