Ancient Grassy Balds: A Great Place to be During a Pandemic

Ancient Grassy Balds: A Great Place to be During a Pandemic

Frances Figart

By Frances Figart, Creative Services Director 

Mysterious and haunting, Southern Appalachian grassy balds have long fascinated scientists and hikers alike. How many balds are there in the Smokies? How did they evolve? How do they support rare plants? Can balds be found in other parts of the world? 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park forester Jesse Webster gets these questions so regularly that he has created a program about grassy balds of the Smokies entitled “Balds: Ecological Enigma and Conservation Dilemma.”

“A bald is a great place to be during these times when we are keeping our distance from other hikers,” he said. “Our park manages two balds—Andrews and Gregory—and late summer, early fall is an exciting time to visit them.”

Grassland remnants of the last ice age more than 10,000 years ago, balds are mountain summits that offered many benefits for both humans and animals. Research suggests they were once kept clear of vegetation by megafauna—grazing by early big animals like mastodons or wooly mammoth, and later bison, elk, and deer.

“Even later, early European settlers brought their cattle and sheep to the balds for choice grazing in summer, keeping them from turning back into forests,” Webster said. “Over time, without the continued grazing of these large animals, the natural process of forest succession would turn these open areas back into dense woods and the unique assemblage of plant species would be lost.”

Gregory Bald

Today Great Smoky Mountains National Park currently manages Andrews and Gregory balds as part of its mission to provide for the future enjoyment of generations to come. Working with the park’s mule team to haul equipment up several thousand feet, the NPS vegetation crew works long hours every season to keep the balds clear of encroaching woody vegetation. Webster and other foresters use weed eaters and large brush mowers to clear both balds, mimicking the cycle of grazing and thus preserving ancient cultural traditions as well as rare plants that escaped glaciation and are important “indicator species” of these high mountain fields.

People come to the Smokies from all over the world to see some of the rare plant species that still exist on the balds, such as dwarf willow, various types of goldenrod, and a dazzling array of azaleas. The two balds offer different kinds of hiking experiences depending on your fitness and time commitment: Andrews Bald covers about four acres and visitors can access it via a fairly easy 3.5 mile round-trip; Gregory Bald encompasses 16 acres and it takes a five-mile up-hill hike just to get there.

Webster said sometimes when he is working up on Gregory Bald he looks down at Cades Cove, which stretches out over the landscape below, and feels deeply thankful for the Smokies and for the founders who had the forethought to preserve it.

“I’m most interested in how unique these balds are, how mysterious they are,” he said. “I’m amazed by the species diversity, the ecological interdependence of these unique species, and how forests are always changing.”

Photo: Vegetation specialists Dan Bryson and Corey Mullins point out some of the azaleas on Gregory Bald. Courtesy of NPS.

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