UNCA Environmental Studies Student Workday

One of the most fascinating qualities of the Roan Highlands is the complex bio-diversity of the region. High elevation grassy balds colliding with shrubs, spruce-fir and hardwood forests is a potent mix. In the Roan you can find 25 globally rare ecological communities, as declared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and 5 federally endangered species. This is a major reason why we value the Roan and do close monitoring of exotic invasive species.

Exotic invasive species in the Roan Highlands are a threat to the bio-diversity of the region. So when Oriental bittersweet was found at our Grassy Ridge property, we enlisted the help of UNC-Asheville Environmental Studies majors who understood the seriousness of this threat.

Oriental bittersweet is a vine that grows fast and dense. It grows so quickly that it out-competes local plant communities for sunlight and in the process it grows up, and girdles, native trees. The plant produces berries that birds eat and transport across the landscape.

Fortunately for SAHC and admirers of the Roan, the students from UNC-Asheville wasted no time helping us address this issue. Under the supervision of Luke Appling, a State Park Ranger for Grandfather Mountain and the Yellow Mountain State Natural Area, the team got to work manually cutting and painting the stems of the Oriental bittersweet with herbicide. Oriental bittersweet can be physically removed from an area, but without the proper use of herbicide the plant will return the next year, often larger than the year before.

The students, led by Luke Appling and SAHC AmeriCorps members Travis Bordley and Ben Lithicum, worked to clear an entire area of roughly 50 square yards. Hundreds of Oriental bittersweet stems were cut and painted, and we expect to see very little re-growth of the invasive plant species on our Grassy Ridge property. This outing also provided the students and opportunity to practice knowledge and hands-on techniques they have learned in their classes.

To reward everyone for their hard work, the group took an evening hike up the ridge to enjoy panoramic views of Roan Mountain, Grassy Ridge and Little Yellow Mountain.

As volunteer Jesse Miller put it, “Volunteering for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy was an immersive experience into understanding the ecology of western North Carolina. The simple task of removing Oriental bittersweet not only showed my peers and me the positive impact we can have on the environment, but also heightened our reverence towards the wilderness in our own backyards. A short hike to the stunning vistas of the Roan Highlands made it all worth it, as we could then reflect on the work we did and hope to preserve this flourishing environment through future conservation efforts.”

Well said Jesse!