Learning About Invasive Species for National Take a Hike Day
Grab your water bottle and a bag of granola, National Take a Hike Day is just around the bend! Celebrated annually on November 17th, Take a Hike Day is a dedicated to exploring the great American outdoors, and the over 60,000 miles of trails in the National Tail System across all 50 states. From the 2,650 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail on the west coast to our very own 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, there is no shortage of nearby dirt paths winding through the woods, no matter what part of America you live in.
This year, to celebrate Take a Hike Day, I am taking a walk in the woods of southern Appalachia with Andy Tait, the director of EcoForestry, a nonprofit organization dedicated to healthy forest management. He will be leading a group of about 20 of us on a hike down the Swannanoa River Trail in Buncombe County, NC, just a few miles east of Asheville. Andy is on a mission to educate the people of the Blue Ridge Mountains about the importance of sustainable forestry, and how invasive species of plants can kill trees and disrupt the balance of fragile ecosystems.
“Around any development, or major roadway, you’ve got invasive plants spreading,” he says. “The invasives seed in disturbed soil and grow faster than native plants, outcompete them, and there are some that can actually kill the native plants.”
A Wonderland of Diversity
“This region is the second most bio-diverse region in the world outside of the tropics,” says Andy. The Highlands Biological Station Agrees. Their website says that southern Appalachia is home to over 10,000 species of known plants and animals and that new ones are discovered all the time.
Growing wild in these hills are beautiful and sought-after native plants like black cohosh, blue cohosh, yellow mandarin, and wild ginseng. The region is also home to the most diverse and abundant salamander populations, as well as bigger animals like White-tail Deer, Black Bears, and Coyotes.
During our hike, Andy explains that invasive plant species are exotic plants that thrive after being imported, either on purpose or by accident, to a new ecosystem where they can outcompete the local plants. Without any natural predators or parasites of their own, these invasive plants can kill off the native ones and take over if left unchecked.
“Every single plant has a specific insect to attack it and keep it from taking over—to keep things in balance,” says Tait. “There’s no balance with invasive plants here, so they are growing really rapidly.”
According to Andy, the invasive plants thrive in areas where there has been soil disruption and added sunlight, such as when someone clears trees for construction or logging purposes, and unless special attention is paid to their removal, any tampering with the forest structure can cause those exotic plants to grow out of control.
Andy stops our group as we are walking through the woods. He walks a little ways off of the path, pulls a long, viney-looking plant out of the ground and begins passing it around to the group of hikers.
“This is Asiatic Bittersweet,” he says. “It’s public enemy number one. It climbs up trees, goes over the tops of them suffocates and kills the tree: the tree falls and the bittersweet spreads. It’s like Kudzu, except it Kudzu needs sunlight to grow. Bittersweet can grow in the shade of a forest floor, and eventually, it climbs up the trees and chokes them to death.”
He says that Bittersweet was initially brought to North Carolina for its beauty, and is still used in local folk art.
“It produces a pretty red berry. People used to make wreaths out of it at Christmas time. It’s now illegal everywhere except in Western North Carolina, where people have made a cottage industry of collecting it and making wreaths and sell it.”
Despite its beauty, Andy says this is one form of folk art that should not be propagated. “If you take one of the wreaths to a new area, you could start another infestation.”He gestures to a patch of it that is growing alongside the path. It has already begun to snake its way up some of the smaller trees.
As he leads us down the trail, Andy stops from time to time to point out parts of the forest that are healthy and parts that need help. He explains that the trees of Appalachia are still recovering from the intense logging that happened throughout the region in the early 20th century.
“No one realizes that this area was totally clear cut 100 years ago,” Andy says. “There wasn’t a tree to be seen. The forests are recovering from that, but they aren’t as good as they were.”
He explains that while trees have grown back, many important Appalachian species like Red Oaks have been replaced by pine trees, which grow faster, but make forests too dense and dark for other plants to grow. Despite this loss, Andy says that southern Appalachia remains one of the most species-rich parts of the world, and needs defending to stay that way.
Andy Tait hopes that forestry walks and events like National Take a Hike Day will help to open people’s eyes to the importance of preserving the natural spaces of Appalachia, and to protect the native beauty of the wilderness from the encroachment of invasive plants. To help spread the word about how to deal with this issue, EcoForesters has released a guide they call the
7 P’s of Exotic Plant Management:
- Protect any at-risk particular ecological areas (rare, threatened, or endangered species or habitats) for carefully targeted invasive control.
- Prevent invasives from spreading into un-infested “core” forest areas and rapidly respond to new infestations before they get established. Secondarily, the long-term ongoing process of containing and controlling severe infestations can begin.
- Plan for invasives control as much as ten years before and after any forest disturbance such as timber management, as invasives can multiply and take over new growing space. Implement forestry practices that promote the health and vitality of diverse native species to compete more successfully with invasives over the long haul.
- Promote long-term, community-wide education and strategies to control existing infestations as invasive species do not respect property lines. Large-scale invasives control and sustainability is best achieved when landowners in communities work together under a cohesive approach.
- Prioritize control of invasives that are the most significant threat to forest regeneration first. Species such as vines that can smother trees, have abundant seeds, are shade tolerant, and fast-growing tend to be the most significant threats.
- Professional planning is necessary to obtain the most cost-effective and impactful results. A qualified forester can perform the complex tasks of demarcating special and core habitats, prioritizing invasives control areas, evaluating local site conditions, and assessing landowner objectives within a comprehensive invasives control plan.
- Persevere as invasive species management is a long-term endeavor. Even if no invasives are present on a property, continuous monitoring for early detection and rapid response is essential. Additionally, areas that have been treated should be re-evaluated regularly, and management approaches adapted based on the results.
So if you find yourself enjoying scenes of unspoiled natural beauty this Take a Hike Day, take a minute to thank the hard-working foresters strive who keep up the woods healthy and diverse. And if you are looking for a gift for a loved one who can’t make it out for Hike Day, check out these framed Appalachian trail maps.