Aliens Invade the Mountain South–Again

By David A. Ramsey

The forests, waters and wildlife of the Southern Appalachian Mountains have certainly had their share of environmental invaders over the past three centuries—the great wave of European settlers, beginning in the late 1700s, carving out thousands of farms and homesteads, the axe and saw-wielding armies of loggers in the 1800s, felling vast forests for the wood of westward expansion, the coal industry in the 1900s, digging, stripping, and blowing off mountaintops to fuel the nation’s industries, and finally, the ridgetop and steep-slope vacation and residential developers, from whose actions there is no recovery or regeneration—all taking their toll on our mountain ecosystems, our vital rivers, streams and fisheries. Now today, almost unbelievably, the Mountain South faces its most insidious invasion yet from none other than Mother Nature, herself.

This most recent, “natural” marauder comes in many deceptive, sometimes even attractive forms, which infiltrate the mountain landscape with hardly a notice by most people. We have labelled them “exotic invasive species,” though I’d suggest “alien invaders” is more fitting. They include various insects and animals, but most of the attacking horde is made up of non-native, invasive plants, which disrupt and alter native ecosystems, rare species populations, stream and wetland dynamics and vital wildlife habitats. Hence, biologists tell us the bill for about 300 years of non-native plant introduction to our region is now coming due.

With names like multiflora rose, oriental bittersweet and mimosa, some of our worst invaders sound harmless, almost charming. But it’s important to learn to identify these and other such devil plants and report them to the appropriate land managers. For those who want to join the battle more directly, there are various agencies and conservation groups that need volunteers and other resources to help with their identification, removal, and control programs. A lot of information on these efforts is available online and directly from relevant state, federal and nonprofit sources.

From a mountain angler’s perspective (without counting non-native rainbow and brown trout, brought to the region a hundred years ago), no other alien species has impacted Appalachian wild trout streams as much and over such a short time, as a pinhead-size critter known as the hemlock wooly adelgid. Just since about 2002 this little killer has infected most of the region’s headwater-loving eastern and Carolina hemlocks, including in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Of course, this means trouble for the health of the streams that sustain our only native wild trout species, the much revered brookie.

Fortunately, there are effective treatments for the hemlocks. But the fact they exist in such great numbers, often in some of the wildest, most remote country in the eastern U.S., has made it impossible to avoid a mass die-off. Thus, the subsequent impact on stream temperatures and fish and aquatic insect populations has already been considerable. The good news is that state and federal agencies, partnering with several major university programs, have developed a set of strategies and tools to prevent this invasion from becoming a full-blown extinction event.

No hard numbers are currently available on the dollar costs associated with invasive species in the Southern Appalachians. Defenders of Wildlife states that the cost, nationally, in damages to property and natural resources and control of invasives, is approximately $137 billion per year. As the invasion worsens, the price for fighting it will, no doubt, climb accordingly.

Not to add doom to the gloom, but complicating the battle against invasives, of course, is the massive problem of climate change. Increasing temperatures affecting sensitive habitats can make native species more vulnerable to encroaching non-natives, accelerating the spread and dominance of the invader. Already, there are estimates that approximately 40% of endangered and threatened native species are now significantly impacted by invasives.

It’s a bit hard to wrap an old brain like mine around, but I believe the takeaway in all this is that we’re not just talking about “maybe someday” having less of our favorite game fish to pursue on those hard-earned days off. We’re talking broken natural connections, degraded streams, changing habitats and whole landscapes—future breakdowns of the vital and diverse ecosystems of our cherished region of the world.

But lest we sink too far into the depths of dread and despair, we can take a little comfort in a few facts:

First, some high-powered minds are working overtime on solutions for controlling, repairing, and reversing the damage inflicted by the invaders, as well as heading off many future assaults before they can get a foothold. Second, as we’ve seen since those early times of wide-scale degradation of the Appalachian environment, our mountain lands and waters are resilient, and with hard work, some money and wise management, they can come back strong from some seriously epic abuse. And finally, we’ve all experienced the power of passion for something important, something that really matters. What matters more than the natural world that sustains us all?

Let’s turn up the power.

David Arthur Ramsey is an outdoor photographer, writer and conservationist, born and raised in the mountains of northeastern Tennessee. His outdoor writing and photography have been published locally, regionally and nationally and are most often associated with work to preserve and protect threatened lands and waters throughout the Southern Appalachian Mountains.