North Carolina Field Station Enhances Park Research

North Carolina Field Station Enhances Park Research

Frances Figart

By Frances Figart, Creative Services Director

The house on Limby Birch Mountain at The Purchase provides bunkhouse-style lodging for up to 11 researchers. Photo courtesy of NPS.

The southeastern corner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park lies in Haywood County on the southeastern side of the Cataloochee Divide. Researchers visiting a remote field station here on a piece of land known as The Purchase have to drive or hike a long way to get to any other part of the park.

“The geology changes considerably on this side of the Divide,” said Paul E. Super, Science Coordinator at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center (AHSLC) at The Purchase. “To the northwest of the Divide, going into Cataloochee Valley, the bedrock mostly forms relatively low-nutrient soils. On The Purchase are bands of other rocks that form relatively fertile soils for this area and elevation.”

The term “The Purchase” comes from the highest point in the immediate area: Purchase Knob. The 365 acres donated to the park by Kathryn McNeil and Voit Gilmore include the peak of Purchase Knob, but also fields and land on the adjacent Limby Birch Mountain where a house now provides lodging to visiting researchers studying the park.

“We really should have come up with a better acronym,” Super said of the AHSLC, one of the first Research Learning Centers (RLCs) in the National Park Service. The RLC concept came from a 1999 park service program called the Natural Resource Challenge and was designed to facilitate broad scientific research in parks and expand opportunities for public learning about the park’s natural resources, their significance, and their preservation.

When Congress began funding the Natural Resource Challenge in 2001, GSMNP had just received The Purchase tract from the McNeil-Gilmore family. Park managers drew up a plan to use the facility to house researchers working in higher elevations of the park and to bring them together with education groups.

Paul E. Super, Science Coordinator
Paul E. Super, Science Coordinator at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center, collects botanical data in the high-elevation fields at The Purchase. Photo courtesy of NPS.

Twenty years later, Super facilitates research in the park by “helping to review applications and then issuing permits, locating funding for research to address our greatest needs and priorities, and linking researchers with housing, field assistants, data, and other services that help them get their work done,” he said.

The researcher fortunate enough to secure lodging at The Purchase finds three rooms with bunkhouse-style beds that can accommodate up to 11 permitted researchers. There are two showers, a washer and dryer, a kitchen, desk and lab space, and a conversation pit to relax in.

“Some of our researchers are studying bats or salamanders, working after dark and trying to sleep during the day, so try to give them a little privacy and quiet if you hike up to the facility,” said Super, who actually serves the whole park—not just The Purchase—as well as the Blue Ridge Parkway and other regional parks as well.

The Smokies is so close to so many top research universities that it consistently has been one of the most studied national parks in the country. “Our researchers work hard and enjoy their work here so much,” said Super, “that they usually leave with a plan to start seeking funding for new studies that will allow them to return.”




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