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Fighting Foreign Invaders in Hickory Nut Gorge

Coalition has focused on public lands such as Chimney Rock State Park

Story Highlights
  • Former TNC employee Debbie Shetterly now coordinates the Weed Action Coalition of Hickory Nut Gorge (WAC-HNG).
  • The group has so far focused on public lands but is now starting to work with private land owners.
  • WAC-HNG’s top three most wanted invasive plants are Japanese knotweed, oriental bittersweet and tree of heaven.

When she was a Nature Conservancy employee, Debbie Shetterly helped to protect several thousand acres in Hickory Nut Gorge. Today she is continuing her work in the Gorge – fighting foreign invaders that threaten this incredible spot that is home to a number of rare plant and animal species.

When she was with the Conservancy, Shetterly worked with landowners to acquire property, much of which is now part of Chimney Rock State Park. Today, she is working with landowners to help them control invasive plant species.

Shetterly coordinates the Weed Action Coalition of Hickory Nut Gorge (WAC-HNG – think “wacking weeds”). Much of its work is funded by a National Fish and Wildlife (NFWF) grant. Shetterly credits The Conservancy’s Invasives Coordinator Margaret Fields with the impetus for that funding. “Margaret really is responsible for the NFWF grant. Right before I left the Conservancy, she called me and told me about the availability of these grants.”

Work Begins

The Friends of Hickory Nut Gorge had made fighting invasive plants a high priority for its work. The Friends group worked with one of the Conservancy’s conservation partners – Carolina Mountains Land Conservancy – to secure the grant, which has allowed WAC-HNG to begin its work and to hire a full-time steward to work on the ground in the Gorge.

“So much of the Gorge is nationally significant,” she explains. “With climate change it is even more important, because those north facing slopes and south facing cliffs could become refugia for plants and animals threatened by escalating temperatures.”

WAC-HNG’s top three most wanted invasive plants are Japanese knotweed, oriental bittersweet and tree of heaven. “We have to help people understand that it isn’t a question of how they look, but what they do to native plants and animals,” she says. For instance, the Gorge is famed for its amphibians – including the crevice salamander (Phethodon yonahoassee), which is found nowhere else in the world. Amphibians don’t live in Japanese knotweed, so its spread could have a serious and lasting effect on them.

“Oriental bittersweet is a huge problem because not only is it spread by wind and birds, but people make Christmas wreathes out of oriental bittersweet. At the end of the season, they throw them out, and there you have it,” says Shetterly.

And, then there is tree of heaven, which certainly doesn’t live up to its name. “It takes up space and crowds out native plants. And, it also produces a natural herbicide, putting a chemical in the ground preventing future growth of other plants,” she explains.

A Wealth of Biodiversity

Botanists have identified the Gorge as a hotspot for biodiversity. Invasive plants remove that diversity from the ecosystem – replacing a myriad of native plants with a single invasive. “Biodiversity is nature’s insurance policy. If one species becomes extinct, another can perform the same function,” explains Shetterly.

Shetterly lays out a litany of other problems that result from invasive plants. “They increase erosion, because their roots aren’t as complex as native plant roots, so the soil doesn’t stick as well. They clog waterways and cause floods. They produce huge amounts of biomass, which increases the fire risk,” she explains.

The coalition has focused on public lands such as Chimney Rock State Park and lands owned by The Nature Conservancy and Carolina Mountains Land Conservancy. An important part of that work is creating site management plans that spell out the work needed and develop a timeline for accomplishing that work.

Today, the work is moving to private lands. “It doesn’t do us much good to get rid of invasives in those places if their next door neighbors have tons of tree of heaven,” she says. Part of that work will include helping private landowners create management plans for their property.

“It’s not a sexy topic,” she adds. “But, I have seen a big uptick in understanding. I don’t have to explain the term invasive anymore.”

To find out more visit WAC-HNG’s web site http://www.wachng.org/

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