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Blue Ridge Parkway hosts diverse flora and fauna

On a Virginia mountainside, in a location too valuable to reveal, ecologist Chris Ulrey knelt next to Orchid No. 10."It's alive," he said. "It's got three fruits, three flowers."He consulted his notebook. "Last year, it had one stem and a double flower."The Blue Ridge Parkway hosts one of the...

On a Virginia mountainside, in a location too valuable to reveal, ecologist Chris Ulrey knelt next to Orchid No. 10.

"It's alive," he said. "It's got three fruits, three flowers."

He consulted his notebook. "Last year, it had one stem and a double flower."

The Blue Ridge Parkway hosts one of the few places in Virginia where the small whorled pogonia - an oversized name for such a low-profile flower - is known to exist.

The pogonia is one of at least 50 rare plants that grow within the boundaries of the park, along with an exceptional variety of more common flora and fauna: 1,600 plant species, the second-highest in any national park, nearly 100 species of trees, more than are found in all of Europe; 400 kinds of moss and 2,000 fungi; 54 different mammals.

The astonishing variety is due to the parkway's shape. It runs 470 miles north-south, ranging from 649 feet above sea level at the James River in Virginia to 6,047 feet in southern North Carolina. Long and narrow, low and high, it has many, many temperature and growing zones.

The variety of plants and animals is changing, and not in a good way. Invasive plants, insects and diseases are killing native species, thieves are carrying away rare plants to sell, and unique habitats are disappearing as explained in an old nursery rhyme about horseshoes and kings and chaos theory: for the want of a beaver, the wetlands were lost.

In a million little ways, today's Blue Ridge Parkway is not your grandfather's park. In another 75 years, your grandchildren might say the same thing.

Leaving behind the paved parkway and its ubiquitous streams of motorcycles pop-pop-popping, Ulrey drove into the woods on a track with switchbacks so tight that his truck barely kept all four wheels on the ground as he eased around them.

Every spring since 2003, when this tiny patch of small whorled pogonias was discovered, Ulrey has driven from his office in Asheville, N.C., to count them. Each one is marked with a metal tag; he keeps detailed records on the number of stems and flowers on each plant, and on their strange multiyear cycle of now you see them, now you don't.

The fruits on No. 10 were a small victory. The same summer that the endangered flowers were discovered, someone stole the seeds off every plant.

Poaching is a problem all along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Plants such as ginseng and black cohosh are sold for the herbal-remedies market. Others, such as the pogonia, are coveted by collectors. Galax, a broad-leaved plant, is used in floral arrangements.

Howard Neufeld, a biology professor at Appalachian State University, said market demand is increasing the number of poachers, who earn a penny a leaf for the slow-growing galax.

"They're harvesting it faster than it grows," he said. "If they get harvested at too high a rate, it can have a real impact."

To destroy their market value, parkway workers each year splatter galax leaves with orange spray paint. It's costly and time-consuming, but it doesn't hurt the plant.

The orchid thief, on the other hand, destroyed an entire generation of small whorled pogonias. He also wasted his time.

"No one's ever been able to grow this plant from seed," Ulrey said. "No one's ever seen a seedling. All we see is this plant."

It's a short plant, with gray-green stems and leaves, and a tiny gray-green flower. It seems to need a certain fungus in the soil, but no one knows which one or why, and after blooming the orchids may disappear for as long as five years.

Ulrey has tagged 21 plants over the past seven years, but this year he saw only six. Others may be alive but dormant. He will need at least 10 years of detailed records before he can say how many plants are actually there.

"Honestly, it doesn't look good," he said. "I was hoping to see more plants this year."

At least 50 species of Blue Ridge plants are illegally harvested for the global trade in natural products, a $200 billion industry, according to Blue Ridge 75 Inc., a nonprofit organization that planned the parkway's 75th anniversary.

Many of those plants grow in wetlands, a rare habitat for the mountains, and getting rarer. Although some adjoining landowners have drained wetlands that cross park boundary lines, the wetlands are disappearing largely because beavers are gone.

"Two hundred years ago, beavers would have kept in check woody plants that dry out wetlands," Ulrey said. But beavers were trapped out of most locations decades ago. Now trees grow unchecked, gradually advancing into wet spots and drying them out.

That reduces available habitat for rare plants, and, on top of that, poaching is on the increase.

"Current violators are organized and are 'employed' as part of criminal conspiracies to supply legal markets," Blue Ridge 75 Inc. said. "If sustained, the current levels of poaching will lead to the complete loss of many plant species from Blue Ridge Parkway lands."

The James River at milepost 63.8 flows through a deep cleft in the mountains called a water gap, visible from a footpath called the Trail of the Trees.

The interpretive sign at the base of one tree identifies it as a Royal Paulownia or Princess Tree, named for a Russian czar's daughter, a tree that was imported from Asia for its huge leaves and purple flowers and nice grain.

"An occasional tree will escape from the extensive yard plantings to appear in our forests," the sign reads. It sounds so innocent.

Ulrey carries a selection of chain saws in his truck to deal with each escaped Princess Tree he finds elsewhere in the park.

While in southern Virginia one day, Ulrey said, "The one I'm really concerned about is this tree with the big leaves," and cut it down. Around his feet was Japanese stiltgrass, an aggressive groundcover, and next to the Princess Tree was another invasive, a hefty Tree of Heaven "mother tree," surrounded by saplings.

"This is worrisome," he said.

As the parkway's only full-time vegetation specialist, he cannot, by himself, stop the spread of invasive plants on its 81,680 acres. He deals with them as he can. The late Princess Tree was a chance encounter while going up Sharp Top mountain to check the health of some Carolina hemlocks.

These feathery evergreens, which can grow to 60 feet tall along the Blue Ridge, were integral to the parkway's design. Planners took full advantage of their deep green canopy as they chose mountaintop vistas for overlooks. But the introduction of nonnative insects to a land where they have no predators has been, for the hemlocks, devastating.

"Some would wish for the pristine beauty of these tree-clad mountains unspoiled - but this is idle," wrote the parkway's lead landscape architect, Stanley Abbott. "There has been imposition of man on nature and this was the condition we had to work with in developing the Parkway.... Once you tamper with nature, you had better keep it up."

So Ulrey visits the nation's northernmost stand of Carolina hemlocks, to see whether man's help can halt man's accidental introduction of an insect no bigger than a grain of ground pepper, called the hemlock woolly adelgid.

Each adelgid attaches itself to the base of a single needle and sips fluids from the tree. Infected trees look like they're full of tiny cotton balls, and the only hemlocks that don't look that way are already dead.

But there are exceptions to that grim rule. Those are the 9,000 hemlocks around which, every three years, Ulrey injects a pesticide that travels through the roots into the tree and kills the adelgids.

"We basically are treating about 3,000 trees a year," he said. "Initially, that was the most we could treat with the resources we had. Now, it's all the trees that are left."

Adelgids have killed 98 percent of the nation's hemlocks. In an attempt to save them from extinction, the U.S. Forest Service gathers seeds from the trees and stores them in Chile, out of the adelgids' reach. Someday, the agency hopes to re-establish hemlocks in the United States.

"Once all these trees die, there won't be any food for these adelgids, and the population will crash," Ulrey said. "In about 200 or 300 years, we'll be back where we were before the adelgids got here."

Ulrey checked the branches of a gnarled hemlock that had wrapped its roots around a granite outcrop on Sharp Top. No adelgids were on it, a sign that the pesticide is working.

"Nary a one," he said. "That's really encouraging. If we hadn't treated these groups, I'm convinced they would be dead now. If I can keep them alive long enough to produce some seed, that's my goal."

The iconic tree of the Blue Ridge used to be American chestnut, known as the "redwood of the East." Those trees are gone now, victims of overlogging and of an invasive disease called chestnut blight.

Oaks took the place of chestnut trees in the lower-elevation forest. But when the hemlocks are gone, bands across the mountains will be bare - there are no other evergreen trees to replace them in the regions where they grow, Ulrey said.

Hemlocks provide shade for mountain streams and keep water cold and at the right pH level for fish such as mountain trout. They provide nesting sites and food for hundreds of species of birds that migrate between North and South America.

"When the hemlock goes, there's going to be this ripple effect throughout the ecosystem," he said. "How big the ripple is remains to be seen."

On the highest mountaintops, the Fraser fir used to grow 60 to 80 feet tall. The balsam woolly adelgid, introduced into the United States in the 1900s, has changed that.

But those insects attack only trees that are at least 30 feet tall - the Fraser fir will never grow as tall as it used to, but it won't go extinct, Ulrey said. The hemlock adelgid, however, attacks all life stages, from seedlings to mature trees.

All over Sharp Top mountain, the brown skeletons of dead hemlocks break the green forest canopy.

"Breaks my heart to see 'em all dead like that," Ulrey said.

Ulrey drove on up Sharp Top to find a 360-degree view to enjoy while he ate his bag lunch. This road is not open to the public. Tourists can ride a bus from the Peaks of Otter nature center; there is a footpath for the hearty.

The stone steps from the small turnaround to the viewing platform are breath-taking, and not in a spectacular-view sort of way, although it is.

Ulrey stepped lightly from the platform's stone wall onto a boulder jutting into the sky. Ravens soared on spread wings far below. To the north was Flat Top mountain, once the northernmost place where Carolina hemlocks grew. They are all dead now, leaving Sharp Top as the end of their range.

From Ulrey's perch, the forests fell away on every side. Somewhere hidden beneath the canopy was the wreck of a B-25 bomber that hit the mountain during a nighttime training flight in 1943. The fire it started burned for two days before enough water could be hauled up to put it out.

Invasive pests will not be as easy to deal with. The question for a forest manager is when and whether to intervene.

"You have to remind yourself that nature is not a static entity," Ulrey said. "You have to separate natural from unnatural change. First of all, we need to stop moving things around."

Below, to his right, was a patch of dead trees, defoliated by gypsy moths, which were brought to America in the late 1860s in a misguided attempt to start a silkworm industry. The dead trees aren't pretty.

"I would like to think that the parkway is more than aesthetics," Ulrey said. "We're the last remaining strip of the least-modified form of nature. I feel like if we did nothing, these things would simply disappear."

The loss of a single species can have far-reaching repercussions, he said. Consider the beaver.

Bright sunlight over Sharp Top cast cloud shadows across the trees - dark, then bright, then dark again.

"These forests are changing," he said. "There's nothing we can do about it. What we see now is going to be vastly different in 20 or 30 years."

For one thing, there will be a lot more houses.


Information from: The Virginian-Pilot,