Sandy Mush Forest Restoration Coalition Update

Photo of a tangle of Oriental bittersweet vines.

Oriental bittersweet vines can be extremely prolific, killing trees and harming forest health.

The Sandy Mush Coalition — a partnership among SAHC, the Forest Stewards Guild, and EcoForesters – has completed its first year of collective effort to increase capacity to control invasive exotic plants and improve forest stewardship in Sandy Mush. The coalition is fostering healthy and resilient forests that protect environmental values, cultural heritage, economic opportunities, and quality of life for people in the Sandy Mush area of Buncombe, Madison, and Haywood counties.

“The purpose of the coalition is to increase the community’s capacity to conduct forest management activities and to address the concerns and needs of landowners in the community,” explains SAHC Stewardship Director Sarah Sheeran.  “We just finished the first year of our partnership, in which we’ve been meeting with community members, natural resource professionals, and stakeholders. With the coalition up and running, we have an action plan and are now in the process of implementing that plan as we head into our second year.”

The coalition held two introductory information-gathering sessions with community members last fall and a Sandy Mush Forest Restoration Gathering in January, in which a variety of organizations and forest professionals presented.  These facilitated listening sessions connected state and local partners and other nonprofits involved in forest health initiatives with community members.

A tree after the Oriental bittersweet vines have been cut and treated

A tree after the Oriental bittersweet vines have been cut and treated.

“The coalition is providing a means to connect landowners with the technical and financial resources they need in order to improve forest stewardship on their properties,” continues Sheeran. “The event in January was a powerful way of gathering the people together in one room so that SAHC and our coalition partners could answer questions from landowners on the tools and resources available to help them manage their land.”

Funding for the coalition also enabled SAHC to treat approximately 50 acres of our conservation properties and preserves.

“We’re trying to be good stewards of the land we own and fulfill our own commitment to management, while modelling these management practices for others,” says Sheeran.

Blue Ridge National Heritage Area logoThis project is made possible in part by a grant from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Partnership. Support from local philanthropic environmental leaders provided critical funding to make the coalition possible. We also want to thank the state and local partners and other nonprofits who presented at the community gatherings and have been involved in these efforts – including NC Forest Service, NC Wildlife Resources Commission, Mountain Valleys RC&D, MountainTrue, Hemlock Restoration Initiative, and several others.

“We’ve all been working together to fulfill community goals for family forests in Sandy Mush — To help gain an understanding of what people value about the land, fears they have, and the needs they’ve identified, so collaboratively we can come up with a plan to address these needs and concerns,” says Sheeran.  “What I really appreciate about the community is how much they value their sense of place. This is a very tight knit community that has a tremendous love for their land, their neighbors, and their place. You get a real appreciation for how special Sandy Mush is – the sense of ownership and pride in community.”

30 Years of Roan Stewardship!

SAHC and USFS Botanist Gary Kauffman surveying Gray's lily

SAHC and USFS Botanist/Ecologist Gary Kauffman survey Gray’s lily populations in the Roan, 2019.

You may already know that SAHC has been working for more than 45 years to protect and conserve our mountain home. And, you may also know that we trace the origin of our organization to the Roan Highlands, where SAHC’s founders first began efforts to conserve the land and views surrounding the Appalachian Trail. But, did you know that our efforts to actively steward and manage those lands started 30 years ago, with the formation of what is now known as the Roan Stewardship Committee?

Roan field crew in 1987

1987 field crew doing gassy balds surveys for the development of the first balds management plan. Photo by Paul Sommers

The Roan Stewardship Committee is an ambitious collaboration of multiple partners including government agencies, nonprofit organizations, recreation clubs, scientists, and individuals passionate about conservation of the unique ecological communities found in the Roan Highlands. It began with a handful of individuals concerned about long-term stewardship of Roan’s unique ecosystems.  Now 30 years later, the Roan Stewardship Committee consists of more than 15 agencies and organizations. Some groups, including the U.S. Forest Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, are long time partners, while others – like the Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture – are new to our collaboration. From the beginning, SAHC has formed the nexus of this collaboration, facilitating the Roan Stewardship Committee meetings and partnership efforts.

Judy Murray, retired SAHC Roan Stewardship Director, led those stewardship efforts with an unwavering focus for more than 25 years, and handed over a vibrant and focused Roan Stewardship program to Roan Stewardship Director Marquette Crockett in 2014. In January this year (2020), Marquette facilitated the 30th meeting of the Roan Stewardship Committee.

“Digging through previous meeting notes this winter, I found the agenda from the first Roan Stewardship Committee meeting,” shares Marquette.

From Paul Somers, 1989:

“….I have reserved two cabins (number 19 and 20) at Roan Mountain State Park, for the evening of February 15, 1990 and the following day February 16. The purposes of the meeting, as I see them right now are to:

1. Review any completed sections of the Balds Management Plan

2. Formulate positions on pesticide use on the Roan Mountain (balds and spruce-fir particularly)

3. Review the status of the Hampton Creek Cove Management Plan

4. Discuss plans for the upcoming field season.

5. Discuss alternatives to AT relocation onto Grassy Ridge.”

SAHC and USFS staff plan for balds management.

SAHC and USFS Staff Planning for Grassy Balds Management. (Marquette Crockett left, Sue Fruchey right).

When the Committee met this year, similar items dominated the agenda. The Roan Stewardship Committee is reviewing the new Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan and about to embark on an update of the Balds Management Plan. This winter, we’ve been working with the TN Division of Natural Areas to update the management plan for Hampton Creek Cove State Natural Area to include new priorities and address new threats. The Roan Stewardship Committee also shared reports about various partners’ work and discussed the upcoming field season — including red spruce-Fraser Fir restoration and grassy balds management.  

“Similarities between the 1990 and 2020 meeting agendas illustrate a very important point – at SAHC, forever really does mean forever,” says Marquette. “Before coming to SAHC, I had worked for different entities (including the government) and witnessed initiatives come and go — people move on, directives change. But, that hasn’t happened on the Roan. Many wonderful people have committed entire lifetimes to conservation of the Roan Highlands, and more importantly, they have handed down their knowledge and commitment to new generations.”

“I am thankful for all the quirky, brilliant, and absolutely dedicated people who have made the Roan Highlands what they are today,” adds Marquette. “The conservation and ecological management of the Roan is a complex task spanning generations, and it simply would not be possible without the support of SAHC’s members and partners.”

Cheers for 30 years of Roan Stewardship!

Get Involved — Outings and Volunteer Opportunities

Curious about what makes the Highlands of Roan so special? Each year we host a full day of outings and social gathering in the Highlands of Roan to enjoy and introduce people to the wonders of this special landscape. This year, our annual June Jamboree will be held on Saturday, June 13.

Want to help with caring for Roan’s unique grassy bald habitat? We also host an volunteer weekend each year — the Grassy Ridge Mow-Off — which presents an opportunity for people to help with hands-on habitat management. Come for the day or backpack to the work site and camp with us to enjoy stunning sunset/sunrise on Roan’s “sky islands.”

Save the Date! The Grassy Ridge Mow-Off this year will be Saturday-Sunday July 18-19.

About the Highlands of Roan

Straddling the border of Tennessee’s Carter County and North Carolina’s Mitchell and Avery Counties, the Roan Mountain massif (also known as the Highlands of Roan) is a series of mountain peaks and ridges that rise above 4,000 feet in elevation. They are renowned for their exceptional biological diversity and magnificent beauty.

The grassy bald communities of the Roan were once kept open by a combination of weather conditions and grazing by prehistoric “megaherbivores”. Imagine a herd of elephant-sized mastodons grazing these mountaintops! In the recent past the balds have been maintained by natural herbivores (elk, bison, deer, etc). Farmers later grazed their livestock on these same slopes. Currently the balds are maintained through livestock grazing and mowing. Many rare plants, including the beautiful Gray’s lily, are found growing on the balds. Management of the balds is accomplished through partnerships between the U.S. Forest Service, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club, and numerous volunteers and researchers.

Voluntary Ag Districts Benefit Farmers

Cost-Share programs are available for farmland conservation easement landowners through Buncombe County’s Voluntary Agricultural District 

Agricultural lands are an essential component of the western North Carolina landscape and the region’s natural and cultural history, and SAHC takes pride in helping farmers protect their land from non-farming development. Our agricultural conservation easement landowners’ commitment to permanently preserve their land in active farming contributes to the continued vibrancy and health of our region. In recognition of these contributions, Buncombe County Soil & Water Conservation offers a Voluntary Agricultural District Preservation Program, which benefits landowners whose farmland is under conservation easement in Buncombe County.

What is a Voluntary Agricultural District?

Voluntary Agricultural Districts (VADs) play an important role in slowing the loss of farmland and protecting farmers in the region. Farmland preservation helps protect our region’s natural resources, wildlife habitat, scenic beauty, and rural economy. Specifically, a VAD is an area of qualifying farmland of at least 50 acres, (which may consist of one large tract or a collection of nearby, independently owned parcels). In order to be eligible, farmland must meet several basic requirements and landowners must sign an agreement to preserve and promote agriculture in their communities. An Enhanced Voluntary Agricultural District (EVAD) additionally requires landowners to place their land under an irrevocable conservation easement restricting development (for 10 years or more).

What are the benefits of the VAD/EVAD program? 

Enrollment in the VAD/EVAD program provides landowners with access to many resources and economic benefits. Participants in the program may receive protection against nuisance suits, waived utility assessments, and educational materials. Furthermore, EVAD participants are eligible to receive up to 90% of cost share under the Ag-cost-share program.

To learn more about farmland preservation in Buncombe County, or to apply for the VAD/EVAD program, contact Ariel Ziip with Buncombe County Soil & Water or visit: https://www.buncombecounty.org/governing/depts/soil/farmland-preservation.aspx

Aerial Monitoring of Conserved Land

View from Above – Aerial Monitoring Using Satellite Imagery

To supplement our on-the-ground stewardship efforts, SAHC is developing an aerial monitoring program. SAHC stewards land spread across approximately 4,000 square miles — and as of 2020, our Stew Crew is responsible for monitoring over 50,000 acres of conservation easements and SAHC-owned land.

Individual tracts range from 0.5 acres to over 8,000 acres, with the majority of protected properties being between 100 and 200 acres – much of which is steep and rugged terrain. Annual monitoring site visits require substantial time and resources, and SAHC performs rigorously in fulfilling these monitoring responsibilities. However, as our portfolio of protected land continues to grow (yay, land protection!), the physical challenge of visiting every protected acre each year looms at the horizon of impossible — even for the Stew Crew at SAHC. 

Over the years, we have used new technological tools and methods to pragmatically boost efficiency and accomplish our commitment to perpetual stewardship of protected lands. This year we are excited about integrating aerial monitoring into our stewardship program.

What is Aerial Imagery Data and How Do We Use It?

In recent years, we have augmented our monitoring procedure by using satellite imagery that is freely available through Google Earth software to prepare for field visits. However, the intermittent publication of such publicly available imagery often makes it useless for detecting changes that occur on a protected property within the current year — the fundamental objective of annual monitoring.

To address issues of satellite data availability and resolution, we have researched companies who compile satellite data captured by multiple entities and make it available via a web service. Specifically, we’ve been looking at companies that focus on providing high resolution satellite imagery (that’s 0.5 meters or less) for environmental and conservation organizations. This service is a repository for historical and current imagery, and they contract with commercial satellite companies to request current images where they are unavailable. 

Aerial Monitoring in Keeping with LTA Standards and Practices

SAHC has decided to proceed with developing an aerial monitoring program in keeping with the Land Trust Alliance’s Standards and Practices.

We are currently identifying properties that SAHC stewards that are best candidates for aerial monitoring and plan to begin implementation in early spring of 2020. This program has the potential to help SAHC more completely survey properties to detect changes – especially encroachments in remote locations. It does not, however, replace on-the-ground monitoring. While monitoring using current, high resolution satellite imagery will enable us to increase efficiency and be in better touch with the condition and activity on the lands that we steward, we still very much look forward to seeing you all in the field!

 

ETSU Student Volunteers

Thank you to East Tennessee State University’s Service Learning Program for volunteering to assist with land management at SAHC’s Bird House Preserve in the Highlands of Roan. Student volunteers helped remove old structures and continued Golden-winged Warbler habitat management on the property. In the process we salvaged roughly 50 black locust posts that will be used for future trail maintenance.

Roan Recreation Updates 2019

We are working with Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), and Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club (TEHCC) to address recreational impacts in and around Carver’s Gap and Grassy Ridge. This area, with easy access to stunning scenic views along the Appalachian Trail, has experienced significant increases in visitation. We joined these partners for two work days this summer, to repair and restore a section of the trail going up Jane Bald. In addition, new signage and interpretative materials are planned for 2020.

Over the course of the summer, Roan Naturalist Sarah Jones interacted with more than 8,500 people on the Appalachian Trail. Sarah taught visitors about the ecology of the Roan Highlands and the role that SAHC and other partners play in protecting the landscape.  She shared Leave No Trace ethics and provided support for hikers of all levels. We are very appreciative to our friends at the ATC and the TEHCC for their support of this position.

College Students Volunteer in the Roan

Students from Mars Hill University and Warren Wilson College joined us this spring for a Golden-winged Warbler habitat management workday and camping trip along the Appalachian Trail in the Highlands of Roan.

The energetic volunteers cleared downed tree limbs and lopped saplings to create ideal breeding ground for this threatened species of neo-tropical migratory songbirds. Read more