Take a drive along the backroads of western North Carolina, especially through Ashe, Watauga, and Avery Counties, and you will find the birthplace of all those Christmas trees that show up in roadside stands the week before Thanksgiving. To many people, the neat rows of carefully pruned Fraser fir, Abies fraseri, trees create a picturesque scene, but for raw, natural scenic beauty, you need to climb a little higher in the mountains and visit the true origin of all those trees. The natural Fraser fir forests that blanket our highest peaks are cool, dark, hauntingly beautiful places.
Or, at least, they used to be.
Only a few decades ago, the Fraser fir natural community—generally found above 6,000 feet in elevation—was a seemingly healthy ecosystem, with a tight canopy of fir trees, an understory of American ash and a few shrubs, and a thick ground cover of moss, ferns, and herbs. Today, that ecosystem no longer exists. In its place is a jungle of skeletons, with dead gray boles lying scattered about like so many pick-up sticks. Many of the dead trees still stand as sentinels to something gone wrong. The resultant opened canopy has completely altered the ecosystem, allowing plants that don't belong here to become established. Where you once needed snowshoes to walk over the luxuriant moss without sinking in, today you need leather chaps to wade through the thick blackberries and other weeds.
To attempt an understanding of what's going on, we need to go back some 10,000 years to the end of the Wisconsin glaciation, the region's last ice age. Mile-thick sheets of ice extended as far south as Pennsylvania, displacing species that lived only in the cooler northern regions to areas of the South. When the ice retreated and the temperatures warmed, those species found refuge on the highest mountains. With high rainfall amounts (up to 100 inches annually) and temperatures averaging 10-15 degrees cooler than the lower elevations, flora and fauna typically associated with New England and Canada could survive in the southern Appalachians. Trouble is, the specific habitat requirements essentially trapped those plants and animals on these mountaintop "islands." And since the highest mountains of the central portion of the Appalachian chain are too low to support this Canadian Zone ecosystem, the species are isolated from their northern brethren. If something goes wrong, they're stuck.
Something did go wrong. Way wrong.
In 1955, a forest ranger on Mount Mitchell discovered several Fraser firs that had brown needles and appeared dead. After two years of investigation, an entomologist discovered a "white woolly waxy material" on some of the trees. The U.S. Department of Agriculture identified it as Adelges piceae, the balsam woolly adelgid. The adelgid was a well-known northern pest, accidentally introduced from Europe sometime around the turn of the century. The 1957 discovery on Mount Mitchell was the first official sighting in the southern Appalachians, although it is certain to have been present earlier.
Adelgids feed on the sap of all true firs, such as the Fraser fir of southern climes, and the balsam fir of the northern regions. Trees respond to the feeding by producing thickened cell walls that prohibit the passage of water and nutrients, essentially suffocating the tree. Some estimates suggest that over ninety percent of mature Fraser fir trees are now dead. Although some mature trees still survive, the high-elevation ecosystem of the southern Appalachians is forever altered.
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According to some, that's the end of the story. Bugs killed our trees. On interpretive signs at Mount Mitchell State Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and along the Blue Ridge Parkway, that's what you read. Only recently have those signs been changed to reflect what independent-thinking scientists have long known and even longer suspected, that something else is going on here.
At elevations above 6,000 feet, Fraser fir occurs in almost pure stands, but at lower elevations, the fir mixes with red spruce and other trees. When scientists began studying these Fraser fir and spruce-fir forests, they discovered more than just firs dying. Spruce and numerous other plants showed clear signs of distress as well. The adelgid feeds only on firs, so they knew that other factors were involved. In the mid 1980s, Dr. Robert Bruck of N.C. State University studied the forests on Mount Mitchell, and although he suspected that air pollution was a contributing factor to the forest decline, he had no hard evidence. But one day in 1987 "serendipity struck" as Bruck recalls. "We were up on the mountain on a beautiful June day taking pictures of bud break. That night, a heavy cloud came in and sat on top of the mountain. It stayed there for the next 15 hours, through the next day...We sampled continuously and found the cloud had an average pH of 2.71. That's 940 times more acidic than clear rain water-almost the acidity of vinegar. The next afternoon, the sun came out again, and these young needles all over the mountain started to turn brown."
Dr. Bruck collected bushel baskets of the needles and took them to the EPA lab in Raleigh, where tests showed the brown areas had 17 times more sulfur than the healthy areas. The sulfur was in the form of sulfate, for which there are only two airborne sources: volcanic eruption and the combustion of fossil fuels. "And there weren't any volcanoes erupting", Bruck recollects.
This initial research, along with numerous other studies by Bruck and many others since, confirms that air pollution in the form acid deposition is a contributing factor in the overall forest decline in the higher elevations. The acidity is carried by falling rain or the thick clouds that often blanket the highest mountains. Unfortunately, no one can state unequivocally just how much of a role it plays. Researchers know that acid rain weakens the tree's normal defense systems, making them more susceptible to natural stresses such as extreme winds, drought, and natural pests.
As Dr. Harvard Ayers of Appalachian State University puts it, "The balsam woolly adelgid was around for 50 years before it became a problem for the Fraser firs...we didn't start seeing any significant death until the '80s. That period also happens to coincide with the occurrence of higher levels of air pollution...Those trees have the equivalent of AIDS, which is basically brought on by air pollution. With a weakened system, any normal stressor-and certainly something as vile as the balsam woolly adelgid-can finish them off."
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Is there any hope left for the Fraser fir and the high elevation forests? Many cite the passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990 as a step in the right direction, if not the outright solution. After passage, many in the government raised the winning flag and stopped funding much of the research, stating that we now had a solution in place-we now had the answers.
To this attitude Bruck retorts, "The hell we have. We've just started asking the right questions." For one thing, Bruck says not only has the Clean Air Act not reduced the amount of sulfuric acid at Mount Mitchell, the amount of nitric acid has increased considerably. He estimates that in as little as fifty years all remnants of the spruce-fir ecosystem will be eradicated. To anyone who saw those majestic forests in the early 1980s or before, it's difficult to disagree with his pessimism. From an ecological perspective, the forest is already gone.
The discovery of a few apparently healthy mature fir trees in isolated areas of the mountains has raised hope in finding trees with some sort of natural resistance to the adelgid. If there are trees with resistance, scientists could exploit that and work to reestablish the trees throughout their natural range. Perhaps with the adelgid attack eliminated, the trees would be able to withstand the threat from acid rain and other stresses. Although a number of researchers are working on this hope, Dr. Bruck is not optimistic. "We've looked long and hard for resistant trees," Bruck explains.
This gloom and doom shouldn't keep you from exploring what is left of the spruce-fir environment. There are still a few places left where there is little evidence to the non-scientist that anything is wrong. While all the big trees are mostly gone, the remaining trees still give off that unmistakable aroma that makes you think of Christmas, no matter the season. Here are a few of the more easily accessed places.
Several hikes on Roan Mountain take you into a spruce-fir forest that is perhaps the least altered in all the mountains except for a few inaccessible locations. The easiest hike is along the Rhododendron Gardens loop trail. This hike is world-famous for its June rhododendron displays, but at other times of the year, the forest walk makes it appealing. There is a paved section suitable for wheelchairs, making it the only high-elevation forest accessible to disabled persons. Other good hikes on Roan Mountain are the half-mile walk to Roan High Bluff, which passes entirely through the spruce-fir forest, and the half-mile climb from Carvers' Gap to Round Bald, which passes through a section of forest. Roan Mountain's finest forest hike is the nearly two-mile section of the Appalachian Trail between Carver's Gap and the old Cloudland Hotel site. Photographers will find something interesting to photograph most everywhere in the Roan Mountain Highlands region.
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Mount Mitchell and the Blacks
The uninterrupted dark cloak of fir and spruce that gave the Black Mountain Range its name is no longer there, but a few moderately accessible places along the range allow you to experience a glimpse of what the forest used to look like. From the parking area just below Mount Mitchell's summit, head north on the Deep Gap Trail, which starts through the picnic area and runs along the crest of the Blacks. The first half-mile or so passes through a dense forest of young Fraser firs with a thick ground cover of moss. Another good spot is along the Camp Alice Trail, which runs from the path to the tower on Mitchell's summit to the Commissary Trail. Although easily accessible, Camp Alice Trail is strenuous. The self-guiding nature trail on Mitchell's summit used to be a pleasant walk through the forest, but no longer.
Some 75 percent of Fraser fir habitat exists in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but most of it is accessible only by hiking long distances. Also, most of the easily accessed locations are so severely altered that you wouldn't want to go there unless you're making documentary photos. Both the popular climb to the summit of Clingmans Dome and the Spruce-fir Nature Trail are depressingly affected. Probably the best of the accessible spots is the Appalachian Trail between Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome. The entire hike is good, and at some spots along the trail you actually feel like you're in an unaltered spruce-fir forest. You can access the trail from several points along Clingmans Dome Road.