This is the third post in my Appalachian Biodiversity series, in which I take a closer look at Floyd County, Virginia. Floyd is where I live and focusing on where you live is, if nothing else, practical. As biodiversity thins rapidly all around us, I believe that we who want to help must focus on the ground beneath our feet. As more and more land goes under the plow for agriculture, is clearcut for industry, and paved over for development, everywhere is important. If this sounds histrionic, think back over the past year.
- …see more than a few monarch butterflies?
- …see that familiar sea of fireflies blinking in the summer night?
- …notice clouds of moths swarming your outdoor lights?
- …see a box turtle? If not, can you remember the last time you did?
If you can answer yes to all of these, you are one of the lucky few, I think. For the rest of us, the Sixth Mass Extinction is happening right in our own back yards.
The Sixth Mass Extinction is happening right in our own back yards.
When I started learning about Appalachian biodiversity last year, I wanted to understand more about Floyd County’s ecosystems. I will confess–I’ve mentioned this in past posts–that I didn’t expect to find evidence of a rich treasure trove of wild biodiversity and ecological integrity here. I know enough about old growth forests, places like Joyce Kilmer or the Avenue of the Giants in Northern California, to know that Floyd has virtually nothing on par with that. And though I didn’t know what I was looking at at the time, I saw a lot that depressed me. Now I recognize old fence lines invaded by Asian bittersweet vine and multiflora wild rose, or abandoned houses crawling with invasive species. These are not to be confused with the occasional old abandoned farm that tugs at my heartstrings, its winter hillsides dotted by broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) standing buff bronze in the winter landscape. In places like that, the native grasses seem to be keeping the invasive species at bay.
Virginia DCr’s Natural Communities
The first resource I found was the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Ecological Groups and Natural Community Types. This is a system for identifying what are essentially large native plant guilds, communities of trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers and more that tend to grow together. The community types are bound by shared soil types, growing conditions, regions and climate, as well as millions of years of co-evolution. The descriptions and photographs spoke to me. I wanted to find our own woods in that system. But I struggled to understand most of it for many months. For one thing, I had no background in Latin names or the plant classification systems. I knew what oak trees and conifers were, grasses and woody shrubs, ferns and mosses. But my knowledge stopped there. I wasn’t even sure that the long-needled sapling pines growing here and there in our woods were Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus). And when it came to oaks, forget it! Just the many Quercus names I encountered in reading the community types descriptions made my head spin. I would forget a name I had just read only seconds later. I read them over and over again but it was months before they began to stick–and I am not a stupid person! Nor could I identify the oaks in our neighborhood and our yard. Never mind understanding rocks and soil, which the community types casually refer to at regular intervals using terminology I found utterly inscrutable. For example, what does “calcareous soil” mean? Is it another way to say “alkaline soil?” (The answer in Appalachia is not necessarily).
So, while I’ve come far since the days I struggled to keep Quercus rubra, Quercus alba and Quercus coccinea straight, I wouldn’t recommend diving into the Virginia DCR Heritage Community Types if you’re interested in learning about local ecology, unless you already have a grasp of botany and geology. Or unless you’re a glutton for punishment like I am 🙂 I would also add that the Heritage Community Types are beautiful and their catalogs are important work. But they aren’t terribly practical for identifying Southwest Virginia’s forests. Indeed, as the name “Heritage” rather obliquely implies, they describe relatively intact ecosystems, the closest we have to pre-contact forests. Unfortunately, these are uncommon. The whole East Coast was clearcut in the 1930’s and before that in the 19th century to fuel the Industrial Revolution. Agriculture and development have further disturbed the native forests, giving rise to ecosystems known as Ruderal Community Types. These dominate Southwest Virginia and tend to have a lot of invasive species growing in them these days.
Of course, nothing in Appalachia, especially in Floyd, can be described as intact, even if it’s been protected for hundreds of years, because nothing escaped the loss of the American chestnut tree, or the gray wolf, or the wood bison. The American chestnut (Castanea dentata) not only provided a lush abundance of sweet rich nuts, fragrant nectar, and excellent wood–but it was truly massive. The Redwood of the East towered above the other trees in the forest. Lutts’ 2004 article, “Like Manna from God: The American Chestnut Trade in Southwestern Virginia” paints a vivid picture, describing a Floydian remiscing about the “light, cream-colored blossoms, and a big tree that grew up a hundred feet high would have a spread at the top of it a hundred feet wide, maybe. You could see them sticking up out of the woods, and it was just like big, potted flowers standing up all over the mountain. It was a sight to see.”  An era in the life of this continent has passed forever into history.
The Resilient Lands Mapping Tool
When I discovered The Nature Conservancy’s Resilient Lands Mapping Tool, I had finally found a tool that was relatively easy to use to try to understand Floyd County’s ecosystems. It can be used to look at anywhere in the United States, with the exception of towns and cities. If you live in a city or town, the Mapping Tool grays out those areas, but take heart! Dr. Doug Tallamy of Homegrown National Park and his bestselling book, Nature’s Best Hope, tells inspiring stories about even small urban yards supporting remarkable hotspots of biodiversity. For the rest of you, follow along to see how I used TNC’s Resilient Lands Mapping Tool to look at Floyd County, Virginia, the place where I live.
Except where noted, maps included in this post come from The Nature Conservancy’s Resilient Lands Mapping Tool. (To use the Resilient Lands Mapping Tool, click the link and then click to icon labeled “Enter the Tool.”) Enter your address in the upper left or simply click, zoom, and drag to focus on your area of interest. Use the radio buttons at right to see different data layers. The basemap layer has roads, rivers, and county lines. The default is the Resilient Sites layer, which includes TNC’s ecoregions.*
*Note that TNC’s names and boundaries for the United States’ large ecoregions are widely used but not the only systems used. Like so much else in the field of ecology, there is not one unified system or central body of knowledge. There are even tables crosswalking the various systems. See tables, extracted from reports retrieved from Conservation Gateway.
Floyd County, VA
Floyd County, Virginia is located at the northern end of the Southern Blue Ridge ecoregion, a region TNC defines as stretching from Roanoke, Virginia to southwesterly to northern Alabama, and running through the lush mountains along the Tennessee-North Carolina border. The East Coast’s highest mountains rise along the Southern Blue Ridge, attracting abundant rainfall. Floyd Conty perches at the northern edge, a mountainous plateau where myriad marshes, seeps, springheads and streams give rise to one of its most famous features.
Floyd has long been known as a place into which no rivers flow. Three major river systems rise in Floyd: The New River, the Roanoke River, and the Dan River. Myriad tributaries spill down the escarpment on the southeastern and northern edges of the county into the Roanoke and Dan Rivers. Most of them cross the county as the three forks of the Little River, gathering and draining into the New River to the northwest of us. The New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world, flowing north into the mountains of West Virginia before eventually emptying into the Mississippi River. The Eastern Continental Divide runs through Floyd County.
Note: I didn’t get this information from the Mapping Tool, but by looking at Google Earth for hours and hunting here and there on the internet. Information truly is fragmented.
The Southern Blue Ridge
The Southern Blue Ridge is a remarkably resilient landscape, according to The Nature Conservancy (shown by areas in green). This is one of the ecoregions identified by the National Academy of Science in 2015 for critical conservation efforts in the United States, due in no small part to the more than 300 rare species living in North Carolina’s Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest.
How Is Resiliency Calculated?
From The Nature Conservancy: “A site’s Resilience Score estimates its capacity to maintain species diversity and ecological function as the climate changes. It was determined by evaluating and quantifying physical characteristics that foster resilience, particularly the site’s landscape diversity and local connectedness.” (https://maps.tnc.org/resilientland/)
Unfortunately, as you zoom into Southwest Virginia and Floyd, what you see is more patchy and brown than the rest of the Southern Blue Ridge. Downtown Floyd is marked with a map pin and surrounded by spotty brown which generally follows US-221, through Hillsville south of here and north toward Roanoke. The brown area broadens around Galax, VA and south into North Carolina. Even the I-81 corridor is not as badly degraded as the US-221 corridor and its outlying agricultural areas.
A little less than half of Floyd County is least, less, and slightly less resilient. We have no highly resilient landscapes, and the only strong areas of green (more resilient) lie in the northern corner of the county adjacent to The Nature Conservancy’s two preserves just over the county line in Montgomery County.
It was at this point during my presentation that the room erupted in questions. It remains the key take-away point for most of the folks there that night.
We have no highly resilient landscapes in Floyd County.
Floyd County in Google Earth
A look at Google Earth explains much of the picture. From that vantage point, it is easy to see that Floyd County is more than half cleared in a checkerboard pattern with no large stands of intact forest. Beyond that, as I mentioned before, Floyd County has virtually no old growth forests. It has few if any intact native grasslands, bogs, or marshes (these being incompatible with pasture grazing or farming, the predominant livelihood here before the 1970’s and still practiced quite widel). Floyd County has very few connected wildlife travelways, and no tradition of productive hedgerows, unlike used to be the norm in Europe. Nowadays, mowing, grazing, herbicide, and logging are the most widely used land management tools.
Another layer of the Mapping Tool shows protected lands. Interestingly, the Southern Blue Ridge has many of the largest protected lands in Appalachia, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Forest, Nantahala National Forest, Cherokee National Forest, Pisgah National Forest, and of course, the Blue Ridge Parkway.
In Floyd County, protected lands include the narrow Blue Ridge Parkway along its southeastern border, and a few other small areas, including Buffalo Mountain. Most of the county is in private hands.
Recognized Biodiversity Value
Recognized Biodiversity Value, another map layer, shows that Floyd does have areas of recognized biodiversity value: along the Parkway, in the northeast corner around the TNC Nature Preserves, and around Buffalo Mountain in the southern corner of the county.
Floyd’s recognized biodiversity value doesn’t compare with the rest of the Southern Blue Ridge or the Central Appalachian and Cumberland Forests, which you see when you zoom back out to the wider region.
And Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) places what biodiversity we have into rather humbling perspective by adding an incremental scale from Low to High for each area. Floyd doesn’t have any areas High in rare species richness, in comparison to areas in the western edge of the state, as well as in the Coastal plain near the busy naval port of Norfolk of all places!
I do wonder if this might partially explain why Floyd hasn’t been targeted for ecological restoration by any of the big regional and national players like The Nature Conservancy and the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative.
Wildlife Migration Corridors
Finally, thinking back to the Nature Conservancy’s map of North American species migration, I tried to understand wildlife migration corridors using the Mapping Tool’s Connectivity and Climate Flow layers. I’m going to admit that I don’t really get it – lol.
I understand why connectivity and climate flow are important. Animals need to safely move around. Some have wide migratory needs. That is, they need to migrate widely over the course of a year (think geese, think monarch butterflies). And many are moving northward as the climate warms, as that original map shows.
By the way, it’s not just animals but plants that are moving. According to Enric Sala (The Nature of Nature), conifers are moving north and fruit and nut trees are moving west, at a rate of ten feet per year!
Anyway, when I look at the two different layers–Connectivity and Climate Flow (Categorical) and Connectivity and Climate Flow (Continuous)–I get two very different pictures. I don’t understand the difference between these. But if you look at them long enough, they seem to agree about where the heavy flows are. In Floyd, these are: along the Blue Ridge Parkeway, near Buffalo Mountain, leaping off the escarpment at the northern tip of the county, and in the mountains above Claytor Lake in Pulaski just over the northwestern border of the county.
They also generally agree about where the blockages are. Floyd County is full of small blockages, as well as being the last stop before the very large blockage at Roanoke. This is a medium sized city at a lower elevation from us. This dip down is known as the Roanoke Gap, where the Southern Blue Ridge mountains descend 1,000 feet before rising again north of Roanoke into the Northern Blue Ridge.
Map after map confirms an impression that the Virginia Southern Blue Ridge, as well as Floyd County itself, represent a weak link in the Appalachian Mountain system. Depressing unless you realize that a weak link represents an opportunity.
A weak link represents an opportunity.
Floyd County has the opportunity to step forward as an environmental steward, and to create innovative community solutions for ecological resilience in Appalachia. Will we take it?
I brainstormed a million ideas for how Floyd County might shore up biodiversity in this part of the state:
- Educating and convening
- Political engagement
- Indigenous engagement
- Conservation leadership
- Creating wildlife migration corridors
- Ecological restoration
- Native plants
In the end, I decided to try to work with ordinary people and to put some tools into their hands that would enable them to get interested and start growing things. I have both a landscaping and nursery background. Besides, the population here is very spread out across a rural landscape, and a bright independent streak runs through it all. This place does not like central authority or intrusion in private space. So I created a one-page list of high quality native nectar producing flowering plants actually native to Floyd County according to the Atlas of the Virginia Flora, and arranged it in bloom order (since that always seems so hard to find). Then I started a native perennial seed starting project based on the plants I could buy seeds for. It is about to get underway and I plan to be busy with that project. For that reason, I believe that the podcast and this blog are done for the time being. I am also building a website for Floyd Native Plants at floydnativeplants.org where we will be creating a database of Floyd’s native plants, and following the seed project. I hope you will follow along on social media – there is a Facebook page. Both Sustain Floyd and Partnership for Floyd are supporting the project with mini grants and will be promoting some of our activities. I hope you’ll follow the project and if not, I hope you have a wonderful year!
Lutts, R. H. (2004). Like Manna from God: The American Chestnut Trade in Southwestern Virginia. Environmental History, 9(3), 497–525. https://doi.org/10.2307/3985770