Restoring North Carolina's "Grand Canyon"
Often referred to as the “Grand Canyon of North Carolina,” the Linville Gorge Wilderness is an ecological jewel of the Eastern United States. Just under 12,000 acres of federally-declared wilderness, the area’s plant and animal communities are stunningly diverse, with the sidewinding Linville River as its center, descending some 1,400 feet from the top ridge.
The Linville Gorge Wilderness is home to fire-dependent species, including federally endangered plants and no fewer than 80 species of birds during the breeding season. Due to decades of fire suppression, these species have declined and intense wildfires have broken out in recent years. These wildfires invited a new threat to this unique ecosystem: non-native invasive plants. Plants such as Butterfly Bush, Privet, and Chinese Silver Grass and others pose a serious threat to the ecological integrity of the landscape.
Since 2007, Wild South has set about protecting wild stretches like the wilderness and the broader expanse of The Wilson Creek/Linville Gorge Important Bird Area, which measures nearly 30,000 acres and includes the gorge itself. Wild South’s Innovation Grant project will use volunteers to control invasive species, monitor bird populations, and educate the public in order to preserve the wilderness character and rare species habitat in the Linville Gorge Wilderness.
The project’s plans include educating landowners and other local residents of the risks associated with non-native invasive plants, as well as hands-on eradication of the plants, using a diverse group of volunteers. Wild South will use its contacts with local birding communities, outdoor enthusiasts, the US Forest Service Grandfather Ranger District, and, perhaps most innovatively, its connection to military servicemen and women to form a volunteer corps to join together to help control invasives. Volunteers will remove a number of species, clip and bag all associated flower cones, fruits, or seed heads present, and record with GPS instruments and digital cameras any new invasives encountered.
“We have chosen to work with this diverse audience to broaden the definition of ‘volunteer stewardship,’” offered Ben Prater, Wild South’s Associate Executive Director. “Wilderness areas benefit many people beyond those affiliated with traditional conservation organizations. We want to introduce new people to the value of service and stewardship on public lands and introduce traditional conservation groups to potential synergies with natural allies such as military servicemen and women and wilderness therapy groups.”