Region of Superlatives
Each spring, the Southern Blue Ridge forests begin teeming with wildflowers. It’s a great time to venture off the highway and see what makes this region, “a region of superlatives.”
“We’re talking about 9.4 million acres of ancient mountains stretching across Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia,’ says the Conservancy’s Southern Blue Ridge Project Director, Kristen Austin. “The Southern Blue Ridge reigns as one of the most naturally diverse areas in North America, and harbors the last remaining large, intact temperate forests in the Eastern United States.”
“The streams flowing through the intact temperate forests provide drinking water to much of the Upstate and act as the lungs of the region, filtering the air that we breathe,” says Austin.
Due to these features, the Southern Blue Ridge is one of the four top conservation priorities for the Conservancy’s South Carolina Chapter. Although comprising less than two percent of the state’s landmass, the Southern Blue Ridge harbors 40 percent of its rare plants, including the Oconee bell and the federally endangered mountain sweet pitcher plant.
Things to See
Where the Piedmont meets the Southern Blue Ridge at The Nature Conservancy’s 560-acre Nine Times Preserve, the Conservancy has recently installed 1.7 miles of trails that connect to other existing logging roads, allowing visitors to experience more of the preserve and discover its bounty of rare flora. From early spring through the fall, 134 native species of wildflowers bloom here.
Just twenty minutes west of Nine Times Preserve, Devil’s Fork State Park is the gateway to the Jocassee Gorges, a 43,000-acre wildlife management area, where the Oconee bell blooms.
Large-Scale, Multi-Decade Conservation Plan
The Nature Conservancy’s vision is that the Southern Blue Ridge will sustain healthy, connected forests and rivers vital for people, animals and plants; will continue to provide clean water and clean air; and will inspire future generations through its beauty.
Instead of focusing efforts on single species and on a single tract of land, the focus is on the network of connected forests and rivers. In the Southern Blue Ridge, that network extends across five states: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. The Conservancy chapters in each of these states have come together to create a shared conservation plan for the region.
As Austin explains, “The Nature Conservancy has worked in the Southern Blue Ridge for more than 50 years. We recognize that we must work collectively and collaboratively to achieve our vision, which means working among the state chapters for the greater good across the entire region. This leveraging ensures that we are getting the most out of the dollars that are contributed to further our work.”
And now, thanks to an anonymous $400,000 gift for the South Carolina Chapter’s work in the Southern Blue Ridge, The Nature Conservancy can get right to work.
One of the primary means by which the Conservancy can tackle such large-scale restoration is through its close partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, which owns three million-plus acres (one third) of forestlands in the Southern Blue Ridge. At the same time, the Conservancy and its partners will seek to acquire an additional 5,000 acres of South Carolina mountain habitat in the coming five years.
Forests Within Forests
While visitors often think of the Southern Blue Ridge as pristine, it has experienced degradation and faces tremendous pressure from proximity to some of the region’s fastest growing urban areas. At the same time, invasive species threaten to fray the fabric of this grand area of natural diversity and beauty.
The forests within the Southern Blue Ridge are complex and layered. At Nine Times Preserve, there are seven different types of forests, thus land management plans and restoration efforts must be tailored to the specific type of forest and the level of degradation.
Like longleaf pine forests, another South Carolina priority, research indicates that fire has played a role in the Southern Blue Ridge for centuries; some species native to the region, such as Peter’s mountain mallow, need the fire to thrive. Controlled burns also protect the region’s forests from devastation during natural wildfires by reducing fuel loads on the ground.
Forests here must also be treated for invasive pests and pathogens. American chestnuts once accounted for nearly one-fourth of all hardwood trees in the Southern Blue Ridge. Today, the once-majestic American chestnut has disappeared—obliterated by a fungus accidently introduced by people.
The Conservancy and its partners have developed the Southern Blue Ridge Fire Learning Network, which brings scientists and land managers together to understand the role fire plays in our forests and develop solutions for how to apply fire appropriately. The Conservancy’s team is also constantly researching and testing new methods to combat pests and pathogens and restore forests.
The South Carolina Chapter also manages a forest demonstration site for the Conservancy’s national Restoring America’s Forests program. The goal of this program is to work with federal land managers, who oversee 40 percent of the country’s forested lands, to accelerate the pace of forest restoration.
What does a better-managed Southern Blue Ridge mean for South Carolina? “The better we care for the Southern Blue Ridge, the more South Carolinians and the third of U.S. residents who live within a day’s drive of the region can enjoy the fruits of this rich area,” says Austin.
Written by Jessica Garrett