Appalachian Biodiversity

This post is based on a presentation I made to Sustain Floyd on Appalachian Biodiversity. It was my pitch for them to take on conservation and ecology issues here in Floyd, Virginia. As I work to break it into manageable sized posts, I understand why I have not had time or energy to post anything since August: The presentation contains at least five posts worth of content! So, this is only one portion of the full presentation. I will be adding more episodes and posts from this presentation. This post covers Appalachian biodiversity as a whole and offers a broad overview of the ecological stakes.

Appalachian Biodiversity Presenation to Sustain Floyd

The Nature Conservancy has identified Appalachia “alongside the Amazon Rainforest and the Kenyan grasslands as one of the most globally important landscapes for tackling climate change and conserving biodiversity.” I was shocked to read that several months ago (in TNC’s article, “Priority Landscapes: Conserving the Appalachians: Hope in a changing climate”) while I was trying to learn more about Appalachian ecology. Unlike the people who come here to get away from the stresses of modern life, or to “get back to the land,” I did not fall in love with this place when we moved here in the late seventies, and fled as soon as I could.

Plumeria flowers bloom on countless trees in Hawaii, filling the air with fragrance most times of the year.

After five and a half years at the University of Hawaii at Manoa on Oahu, I was even less impressed with Appalachia’s beauty, which seemed a dull and muted thing compared to the spectacular landscapes, vivid sunsets, and tropical plant life of Hawaii. When, after living in some equally beautiful places out West, I settled in Floyd County in 2011, I did so under protest, resigned to the thin luck that had dropped me here with the promise of steady work. I took a job with my brother’s company and moved to town soon thereafter. And for years, I grumbled about my fate stuck in a cultural dead zone set amidst what was for me an uninspiring countryside.

Cornflowers in July. This is the prettiest wildflower we have in Floyd.
Cornflowers in July, the prettiest wildflowers we have in Floyd.

Back in the late seventies, when my family settled in Blacksburg, Virginia, Appalachia was a backwater, a region struggling to find its feet after a long history of difficult access, subsistence living on the frontier, repeated exploitation of natural resources, and abandonment by industry. The economic issues facing the region had persisted through the prosperous 1980’s, with poverty, limited opportunities, and low education all too common. Blacksburg was set apart from most of the rest of Southwest Virginia, but not by much. Virginia Tech, the land grant university the town was built around, had not grown into its current prestige, and we enjoyed living in a small town where we could leave our bikes unlocked downtown overnight. But it was much more suburban than the other surrounding towns, where farming communities grudgingly spared their kids from the farm to send them to school, and where the FFA was the biggest club in school.

Circa 1930's era shack in Caney Fork, NC. Photo by Warren LeMay from Cullowhee, NC, United States, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Circa 1930’s era shack in Caney Fork, NC falling down in the weeds. The photographer reports a 23% poverty rate in his hometown. Photo by Warren LeMay from Cullowhee, NC, United States, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Back then, Appalachia was widely seen, including by me, as more than a little poor, backward, and embarassing. I certainly was not proud of it (obviously my feelings are deeper and more complex now), although I came to love some things: the river, the smell of leaves in the fall, rhododendron thickets, and crisp mountain streams. Even back then, I loved them, and I missed them when I lived in Hawaii.

Photo by Mark Ordonez, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When I moved to Floyd in 2011, the town had acquired a thin veneer of revitalization and a reputation for hippie counterculture. But the truth is, this county voted twice for Trump by over 70%. It’s still very much a farming community. Still, things are changing. The forests are recovering. High speed internet has arrived. A new class of migrants are moving here and buying land. Local landowners face a myriad of challenges and pressures to log or sell their land as many families continue to struggle with chronic low wages and underemployment. Those who cling to family land and a pastoral way of life often do so by grazing cattle and haying their fields.

Hay field in Floyd, Virginia.

Where is Appalachia?

As I began to explore Appalachian biodiversity, I found myself wondering just exactly where its boundaries lay? You think you know a place until you start studying it and then you realize that most of your knowledge is a jumble of assumptions. And, indeed, Google Searches turn up a whole range of answers, most of them political, social, and economic. The Appalachian Regional Commission was created to address many of the issues I shared earlier and only extends as far north as New York. Floyd barely makes it into this zone, sitting on its eastern boundary.

Appalachian Regional Commission. Graphic by Jax42 at en.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A common geological definition I found in Wikipedia felt more familiar, and sees Eastern North America’s mountain ranges, plateaus, and foothills, as part of one Great Appalachian Valley (in pink), bracketed by mountain ranges, and cut through by its great river valleys: the Mohawk, the Hudson, and our own Roanoke and New River Valleys, among others.

Greatvalley-map.jpg: Pflyderivative work: Perhelion, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

At some point, I remembered that these mountains were pushed up by continental collision 480 million years ago during the creation of Pangea, and then separated into two sets of mountain ranges on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, starting around 220 million years ago. The International Appalachian Trail actually has sections running through the British Isles, and as far south as Morocco, acknowledging this ancient relationship. See areas in yellow on the map below for areas they claim as “Appalachia.”

From About International Appalachian Trail

In the end, The Nature Conservancy‘s Appalachia made the most sense to me, and naturally so, since their Priority Landscape inspired me in the first place. TNC’s Appalachian ecoregion runs along the mountainous regions of Eastern North America from Alabama to Maine and beyond into Nova Scotia. It excludes the Piedmont foothills and the Appalachian plateaus of Ohio. See the areas in green on the map.

The Appalachian ecoregions from TNC’s Resilient Lands Mapping Tool include: The Cumberlands and Southern Ridge and Valley, the Southern Blue Ridge, the Central Appalachian Forest, the High Allegheny Plateaus, and the Northern Appalachian/Acadian, which include the Adirondacks and the Catskills. This Northern Acadian, by the way, is the forest of Bambi (the Disney movie)!

The Nature Conservancy’s

The Nature Conservancy’s Priority Landscape: Appalachia
The ecoregions of Eastern North America, from TNC’s Resilient Lands Mapping Tool.

TNC’s Resilient Lands Mapping Tool is a fun way to get to know your own land, as long as you don’t live in a developed area. If you do live in a town or city, take heart and remember Doug Tallamy’s insight that you can build a wildlife preserve area in your own urban or suburban back yard. To use the Resilient Lands Mapping Tool, click the link and enter the password shown in gray in the password field when the site loads. Last I checked it was Indigenous Land Password typed exactly as shown.

Why Has TNC Identified Appalachia as a Priority Landscape?

  • Appalachia is one of the most biodiverse regions in North America.
  • The Southeastern U.S. is one of the most biodiverse temperate regions in the world.
  • Appalachia has proven its resilience to climate change since the Ice Ages, and remains an island of relative shelter today.
  • Appalachia is the largest wildlife climate migration corridor in North America.
  • Appalachia has strong human cultural resources.

After centuries of ecological degradation, including the loss of Native American peoples and their regenerative lifeways; the devastating early fur trade; the extinction or eradication of the American chestnut tree, old growth forests, the Eastern wood bison, the beloved passenger pigeon, wolves, mountain lion, beaver, elk, the Eastern salmon runs, and more dazzling biodiversity that we don’t even remember because it’s been gone for 400 years; extractive agriculture, livestock grazing, mining, strip mining, and mountaintop removal; heavy industry and pollution including arsenals and nuclear power plants; clear-cut logging of the entire Eastern forest in the past hundred years; increasing use of herbicides and pesticides; intentionally and accidentally introduced invasive species; highways and paved roads; and widespread modern landscaping practices centered on neatly trimmed non-native lawns and exotic ornamentals…Appalachia remains highly resilient.

Appalachian Resilience in 2022

Appalachia is located inside one of the most populous regions of the country on the East Coast of the United States. And yet, TNC’s Resilient Lands Mapping Tool reveals a resilient landscape in Appalachia. In the face of the many East Coast pressures, Appalachia’s enduring resilience is remarkable. Nature thinks so too…

A Natural Superhighway

This map was the clincher for me. Click to see it full size. I don’t know exactly how TNC gathered the data to create it, but it is a dramatic and compelling message.

As the climate changes, plants and animals are shifting their ranges to adapt and thrive. This map shows where mammals, birds and amphibians are moving–circled in red is the Appalachians landscape, a virtual superhighway for nature. © Dan Majka/The Nature Conservancy (adapted for print by Nicholas Rapp). Read more.

At the same time, Appalachia is relatively unprotected.

A Haven for More than Wildlife

Appalachia is a haven to more than wildlife. These mountains are an island of relative cool, moisture, and milder weather that is increasingly attracting climate change and pandemic human “refugees” as well.

Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/interactive/2022/extreme-heat-risk-map-us/

Conservation in Appalachia

At the same time, Appalachia is relatively unprotected. The vast majority of U.S. protected lands lie in the West. By contrast, the National Academy of Sciences in 2015 found the vast majority of species richness and endemics (natives) in mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, freshwater fish, and trees–in the Southeastern U.S. They identified the most rare and endangered among these to create a priority map for conservation.

From The Grist: Ownership status of lands in the United States. Jenkins, C. N., Van Houtan, K. S., Pimm, S. L., & Sexton, J. O. (2015). US protected lands mismatch biodiversity priorities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(16), 5081-5086.
From The Grist: Recommended areas to prioritize for conservation expansion based on combined species richness for mammal, bird, amphibian, reptile, freshwater fish, and tree taxa throughout the U.S. (2015). This article concludes “a recreational solution may be the best and most economically sound strategy for preserving what ecosystems and species remain in the Southeast.” Learn more.

Appalachia ranks high primarily for salamanders, fish, and plants in the Southern Blue Ridge ecoregion, including more than 300 rare species in the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest.

Green salamanader from Breaks Interstate Park. Photo by Brian Gratwicke, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Why do salamanders matter?

Why does ecological resilience matter? There’s so much we don’t understand. As National Geographic’s Enric Sala has noted (in his book The Nature of Nature), we so often don’t know the real value of a thing until it’s gone. However, we have observed grave ecological losses, and we do understand some things about ecosystems. Intact ecosystems represent hundreds of millions of years of co-evolution. In a functional ecosystem, intricate webs of relationships check and balance each other as well as making many multi-layered and interlocking contributions, feeding and sheltering and prospering each other, in balance. Removal of key species can trigger trophic cascades leading to a lowered state of equilibrium (also known as degradation). So too can removal of a great many “less important” species reduce an ecosystem’s ability to adapt to unexpected challenges, such as climate change. An unstable ecosystem can suddenly elevate a previously minor contributor to pivotal status. Everything matters. Redundancies and back-up systems are the lifeblood of strong ecosystems. Salamanders by themselves will not bring down an ecosystem, but they are indicators of clean water which definitely matters, and which is a cornerstone contribution made by functional ecosystems.

But why should we really care?

Although there are many audiences that don’t need much convincing, there are plenty of folks who don’t love nature and who will need some more hard-nosed reasons to care. I wasn’t really sure about those reasons myself? Like, what is the economic value of nature? The more I thought about it, the more having a good set of facts and statistics in your back pocket when you’re advocating on behalf of nature seemed smart. Indeed, while I was researching, I found a few widely repeated benefits that aren’t actually accurate. So I debunked those while I was at it, because leaning on a weak argument doesn’t help!

Read or listen to Episode 37 Benefits of Healthy Ecosystems.

In coming posts, I will share some of the historic context which got us to where we are today, share some of my observations about the state of Floyd County including close-up views using TNC’s Resilient Lands Mapping Tool, and share some suggestions for ways that a place like Floyd County could help to shore up Appalachian biodiversity in the 21st century.

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