Sunday, June 10, 2012

From the Mountaintop

Cumberland Plateau from High Rock on Pine Mountain
Last week, if you had asked if I could hike ten miles in a day, I would have laughed in your face! But now I am a new woman who CAN hike ten miles one day, followed by five to eight miles each of the following three days! Of course, my feet hurt so much I have trouble sleeping at night, but that's a small price to pay for this wonderful experience at the Pine Mountain Settlement School's Lucy Braun Forest Study workshop. We talked for years about going to see the remaining old forests in Eastern Kentucky, and this was just the way to do it. Pine Mountain is an overthrust fault running approximately 120 miles from northeast to southwest. This means that the sedimentary rocks which normally lie in horizontal layers tilted up as they pushed over existing rock to create the mountain. Lucy Braun was a geologist and botanist who devoted her life to the study of plants and conservation campaigns to save wilderness areas and other natural sites in the 1920's and 1930's - something that women just did not do then. We explored nature preserves such as Bad Branch, Lilley Cornett Woods, Blanton Forest and Black Mountain, finding an incredible variety of rocks, plants and animals.

White Oak
First, my definitions had to change. I'd always thought Lilley Cornett Woods was "virgin" forest that had never been timbered. The correct terminology is "old growth" forest, which has many large trees over 200 years old, along with seedlings, saplings and young trees. My image of large trees with little or no undergrowth was completely wrong. The canopy of trees is broken by gaps formed when large trees fall, allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor. The rotting logs provide vital nutrients to the entire community. Biodiversity is the key word for old growth forests, and this area in Eastern Kentucky has one of the highest levels of diversity in the country.

As I concentrated on my footsteps, trying not to trip on rocks and roots in the trail, I thought about the early pioneers. They had to get lost. They must have been discouraged, struggling up one steep hill, only to find another on the other side, while they slashed their way through rhododendron thickets in the creek beds, commonly known as "rhoddy-hell." I'll never understand how they settled this territory.

 The idea of "virgin" implies that it is the same as it was before Europeans arrived, which it is not of course, even though it has not been commercially timbered. Natural disasters such as storm and fire change the forest. Before the 1930's the dominant tree in the forest was the American Chestnut - until the chestnut blight arrived. All the mature trees died, but small ones still grow from those old roots, until they reach the size to bear fruit. Then the chestnut blight kills them off again. So logging is not the only thing to change an old growth forest.

Hemlock Wooly Adelgid
Now the hemlock wooly adelgid is a great risk to all these forests. It is a small insect that lays its eggs on the hemlock tree, and the larva suck the juices out until the tree dies. I want to cry when I see this damage and wonder how the forest will adapt. Some trees are being chemically treated, a process which must be repeated every four years or so. There is great hope for a beetle which eats only wooly adelgids (we all hope!) Yes, I know, what eats the beetle?

Mountaintop removal
Exotic plants, animals and diseases, brought from other parts of the world by man, are bad enough. But then humans decided deliberately to kill the mountains with a process called mountaintop removal. It wasn't bad enough to dig holes inside the mountains for coal, or to strip off the sides of a mountain. Now the coal companies just take the entire mountain down. Every plant and every animal is dead. No matter how hard environmentalists work, the coal companies and the politicians always seem to win.  This is the view from atop Pine Mountain looking into Virginia. I saw a similar landscape in Washington state, but they called it Mt. St. Helens, and the destruction was caused by a volcano, not human beings.

Jobs and electricity and supposed to be the reasons justifying such destruction, yet I understand that much of the mining is mechanized and large numbers of jobs are not being created. When the coal seams are depleted, what happens to the jobs? They plan to just tear down another mountain. Our group was joined by Hugh Archer of Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, which fights the greedy and short-sighted companies by purchasing land at risk, particularly in the Pine Mountain corridor. It's a challenge though, to raise the money and negotiate with property owners who expect a premium over market value for their land. Much of our hike was on property saved by KNLT.

The next few posts will explore some of the diverse life forms we found on our hikes, including these bright red little newts. So come back for more...

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