Science at Sugarlands: Grassy Balds

Science at Sugarlands: Grassy Balds

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?

These and many other questions will be answered—or at least discussed—on Friday, August 16, when NPS forester Jesse Webster presents a Science at Sugarlands program on the grassy balds of the Great Smoky Mountains entitled “Balds: Ecological Enigma and Conservation Dilemma.” The event begins at 1 p.m. at Sugarlands Visitor Center, is free and is sponsored by Discover Life in America.

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.

“Native Americans most likely played an active part in maintaining the open, meadow-like character of the balds with fire,” Jesse says. “Later, early European settlers brought their cattle and sheep to the balds for choice grazing in summer, and literally carried the torch by continuing to use fire to keep the balds from turning back into forests.”

Today, 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 and various types of goldenrod and azalea. The same unique assemblage of plant species can be found at both Andrews and Gregory balds, the two that are actively managed by GSMNP. Andrews covers two acres and visitors can access it via a fairly easy one-mile ascent; Gregory encompasses 14 acres and it takes a five-mile up-hill hike to get there.

Working with the park’s mule team to haul equipment up several thousand feet, the park’s vegetation crew works every season to keep the balds clear of encroaching woody vegetation. Jesse and other foresters use weed eaters and large brush mowers to clear both Andrews and Gregory balds, mimicking the cycle of grazing and fire, and thus preserving ancient cultural traditions as well as rare plants that escaped glaciation and are important “indicator species” of these high mountain fields.

Jesse says that recently he was up on Gregory Bald looking down at Cades Cove and felt “deeply thankful for the Smokies, and for the founders who had the forethought to preserve it.”

The park currently manages the balds to maintain the unique plant and animal diversity they hold and to and support its mission to provide for the future enjoyment of generations to come. “I’m most interested in how unique they are, how odd they are,” says Jesse, “the species diversity, the species richness, and the ecological interdependence of these unique species, and how forests are always changing.”

You can also plan to attend these upcoming Science at Sugarlands events*

September 20: Plant-soil microbiome interactions and the Chimney Tops fire with Kendall Beals, Ph.D. student, University of Tennessee

October 18: Lichens of the Smokies revealed with James Lendemer, assistant curator, New York Botanical Garden

*All events are FREE and held at Sugarlands Visitor Center, 1420 Fighting Creek Gap Road, Gatlinburg, on Fridays from 1–3 p.m. Registration at dlia.org/sas is appreciated.

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