This document constitutes the final report on an inventory of old growth forest stands found on the watershed of the Big Ivy River, portion of the Great Craggy and Black Mountain ranges. This report covers the period July 1998 through January 1999.
The purpose of the study was to search for and document old growth forest stands.
The Big Ivy section consists of the headwaters of the southern or larger tributary of the Ivy River, which drains the northern part of Buncombe County, North Carolina. Much of the upper portion consists of public land, namely Pisgah National Forest. Upstream of Barnardsville the watershed contains about 20,000 acres, nearly 14,000 of which is within the National Forest. The area is very steep and rugged. Elevations range from about 2600 feet on Corner Rock Creek to 5990 feet at the top of Big Butt, and 6080 feet at the top of Craggy Dome. The watershed contains three smaller watersheds that divide the area into roughly equal thirds, separated by high ridges. The perimeter of the watershed is lined with a long ridge mostly all above 5000 feet.
The area currently under public ownership was settled over 200 years ago with agriculture and timbering begun soon after that and continuing in parts up until the present. Grazing of livestock along some opened ridgetops is recorded as early as 1810. The US Forest Service began to acquire land in the 1920s and 1930s in the area and most of the land was acquired by the 1940s. Timber management and harvesting has been promoted by the US Forest Service with large areas having been cut during the 1960s and later. Clearcutting was used frequently in the 1970s and 1980s. Early records and anecdotes indicate that most of the watershed was extensively logged before and after 1900. Much of the forest bears the legacy of that early treatment. The ruggedness of the terrain, high elevations and small time timbering operations prevented complete logging of the area. There are still some parts that have apparently never been logged or were not thoroughly cut. Many high elevation tree species (Yellow Birch, Yellow Buckeye, American Beech) under mountain conditions were not as desirable as lower elevation species (Chestnut, Oaks, Poplar, Black Cherry). Thus, most of the remaining older forests occur at the highest elevations and on steepest slopes. Under US Forest Service management, most of the higher elevations have been left alone and many previously logged sites are returning to mature, natural stands. An important factor in the current forest status is the highly productive soils and soil moisture, which promotes maximal tree growth.
What constitutes old growth forest is a concept that has been extensively examined by many people. Biologists, ecologists, foresters, environmentalists, timber companies and many others have contributed to the discussions. There will never be complete agreement. However, there are some generally useful and accepted parameters which most agree on.
1) Old trees in the canopy. Some arbitrary age distinguishes old forests
from those not so old. Many trees over 100 years, with some exceeding 150
years, approximate old growth. There is great variability in size (height
and DBH) between sites due to soil, aspect, moisture and elevation, as well
as among tree species.
2) Height of canopy and stratification of forest layers. Older forests develop straight bole tree trunks with few lower branches. This canopy height allows for significant stratification into subcanopy, sapling, shrub and herbaceous layers.
3) Dead woody debris. Older forests show significant mortality due to old age, competition and long decay time for large trees that have fallen.
4) Natural composition. Most deciduous forests of this region show high species diversity and mixed age dominants. They also usually have rich and diverse herbaceous layers. Forests are naturally dynamic, and this leads to diversity. Natural composition can be difficult or impossible to detect, but the difference between a "natural" stand and a manipulated one is often quite obvious.
5) Pits and mounds. These develop in older stands when large trees topple from natural events. Pits and mounds persist for many years. They do not develop when forests are logged.
6) Lack of signs of human disturbance. Human impacts of clearing and logging usually can be seen in stumps and even aged succession species (for example, Yellow Poplar). Extensive disturbance usually shows up with old roadbeds and skid trails or platforms. These signs are eventually obliterated, but last for many years.
Forests that have been altered by human manipulations or natural events eventually return to an old growth condition. This apparently may take hundreds of years in some circumstances, or may be achieved when canopy dominants reach an old age, say 100 - 150 years. This latter case seems to be true for the Big Ivy area. There are many areas that have not yet achieved the age criteria, but are close to natural conditions in many respects. In this study one of the greatest difficulties was in making the distinction between old growth and "almost" old growth. Others, even trying to use the same or similar criteria, would vary somewhat in interpretation. Forest areas now considered almost old growth, will qualify in only a few years.
During the period July - December 1998, I spent about 40 days in the
field surveying for old growth. Based on evidence contained in the US Forest
Service CISC database, as well as my previous experience in the area, I
visited all older stands I could find. I also got to many other sites that
appeared to be potential old growth. I attempted to ascertain where the
boundaries were between those qualifying stands and non-old growth stands.
This is difficult and subject to error in many cases. In some cases, boundaries
are quite clear, often following natural lines such as creeks and ridges.
In other cases, boundaries are imperceptible. I looked especially for signs
of human activity such as roads, stumps, skid trails. Some stands indicated
as old growth on US Forest Service maps were obviously cut over and quite
a few stands had trees older than were indicated by the CISC database. By
and large, at least for Big Ivy, stand boundaries and conditions were fairly
accurately recorded in US Forest Service data. Having had quite some different
experiences with this information source in the past, I was surprised and
pleased. Such a database is an invaluable tool for locating potential sites,
but old growth stands can only be analyzed on site, and repeated visits
are necessary to really judge the site.
At each site selected, I recorded information on community composition and condition. I measured a selection of larger trees, trying to get representatives, not just largest. I recorded DBH of a least three dominant or codominant species. I cored a few trees in each stand or examined cut logs (at trail crossings) to acquire good age data. For some stands, where I was aware that other people had taken cores, or where old age of the trees was obvious or not needed to establish old growth criteria I refrained from collecting this data. I believe coring can affect the health of trees, and tried to keep it to the minimum necessary for the purposes of this study. Many larger trees were too large to core or were rotten or hollow, requiring extrapolation. Getting an exact core is very difficult, and beyond the scope of this study. Most ages reported here are approximate, although where I have reported a specific age, I believe it to be close to the actual age. Additionally, I noted presence of pits and mounds, dead and down trees, and disease evidence. I estimated and in many cases measured herbaceous diversity and cover density. I used a 5-point scale for these measures, attempting to represent the entire site. I included any other observations thought to be useful in describing the site. I attempted to take pictures of representative trees and site views. Such pictures generally are a poor approximation for the "feel" of the site. I recorded observations of rare species encountered. When I began the study, I attempted to make several quantitative plot measurements within sites. This sounds like a good approach, but it soon became obvious that such an approach was too time consuming, given the extent of the area I was searching, and the difficulty of getting to the more remote sites. Furthermore and more importantly, without a systematic selection procedure and detailed plots throughout a site, a few measurements would not fairly or adequately represent a site and could in fact give a false or biased impression.
Site 1. Little Snowball Mountain
Class B 150 acres
3200 ' - 4600' elevation
The site is contained within compartment 21 of Toecane District and encompasses parts (most) of stands 01, 05, 15, and 26. The site is within the timber base.
Dates visited were: 8/6/98, 8/7/98, 10/3/98
This site consists primarily of a blend of Oak communities. Chestnut Oak is the most common canopy dominant, with significant amounts of Northern Red Oak, White Oak and Scarlet Oak. Elevations are not high enough to support large High Elevation Red Oak stands per se, although Northern Red Oak dominates along the ridge tops and is common throughout. The extreme northern end has a north facing cove forest, with a boulderfield and large Yellow Birch, Yellow Buckeye and Sugar Maple. Most of the site was probably selectively cut around the turn of the century, but many large trees obviously predate any such cutting and no appreciable disturbance signs remain. There has been considerable ice/wind damage and blow downs in parts of the area. There is heavy heath understory, especially along the drier ridges. The soils are generally shallow and rocky. There is considerable exposed surface rock and large outcrops/boulders.
Topographically, the site consists of a high ridge with mostly east and south facing aspects. Slopes range from 25 degrees to 50 degrees, mostly quite steep. Representative tree DBH measurements are Chestnut Oak 33, 29, 31, 33; White Oak 28, (3) 24, 31; Northern Red Oak 24, 26, 34, 28. Three core samples indicated ages of 118, 145, 129 years for these three species, respectively. Basal area readings were 100 - 150 sq.ft./acre. There is little sign of human disturbance. An old road goes up through the center of the site to old fire tower remains. The lower boundary is indistinct with old stumps evident but sparse. During the late 1980s a logging road upgrade and extension was put in downslope and clearcutting was conducted on adjacent stands and other sites nearby. Generally speaking, herbaceous cover is moderate to low, which is to be expected in Oak communities, but herb diversity is high. Good wildlife sign and bird populations are present. One state listed rare plant species, Disporum maculatum, was noted on the site.
Site 2. Little Fork Ridge
Class A 50 acres Class B 350 acres
3400' - 5300' elevation
This site is included in US Forest Service compartment 20, including parts of stands 8, 12, 13, 19, 20 and 22 and compartment 21, stands 10, 12, 14, 17 and Toecane District. It forms a unit centered on Little Rock Ridge of Snowball Mountain. The site is within the timber base, although much of it is considered of low timber quality and unsuitable for harvest!
Dates visited were: 7/14/98, 7/29/98, 8/3/98, 8/16/98, 10/17/98
This site contains two distinct natural community types; Northern Hardwoods, dominated by Yellow Birch and American Beech, and Northern Red Oak Forest. The site occurs on the northern slopes of Snowball Mountain, a 5300+-ft. peak. The Northern Hardwoods section occurs on the steep north facing slopes and in deep, high coves. These high coves contain a good amount of apparently undisturbed forest, with large gnarled Yellow Birch trees and lots of American Beech. The two main coves on either side of Little Fork Ridge probably should be Class A and occupy around 50 acres together. Much of the cove areas show the Northern Hardwood variation of Boulderfield community. This is a relatively rare community where trees are rooted in moss mats atop boulders. These are great examples of the type. Several long narrow ridges bisect the site. These ridges have older forests of mostly Northern Red Oak, combined with Chestnut Oak, Beech and Cherry. These Oak forests are also thick with heath shrub layers, both Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel. The whole area is extremely steep and rugged, with large boulders and thickets, most difficult to penetrate. Topographically, the slopes, narrow ridges and coves have a northerly trending aspect. Slopes vary from 25 degrees to 55 degrees. The ridges have thin soils with many outcrops, while much of the intervening coves have very little soil and huge jumbles of boulders and outcroppings. At slightly lower elevations and between the ridges, several coves could be classed as near old growth (Class C). These were apparently cut over long ago since there are no large trees, but they exhibit little or no signs of disturbance and have extremely diverse plant communities. With the surrounding high quality old growth, they add to a considerable unit of quality forest systems.
Representative DBH measurements taken in the Northern Hardwoods were of Yellow Birch 39, 40, 33, 45, 32 (3), 38 inches. Cores indicated ages (by extrapolation) of 150 - 220 years on several individuals. Northern Red Oaks on ridges measure 30, 26, 28, 42 (misshapen) with core ages of 110 - 138 years. Basal areas were 100 - 120 sq.ft./acre. The rocky substrate also does not result in a high density of trees and many parts have lower basal area figures. There is considerable disease mortality in the site, primarily seen in large numbers of dead American Beech and some stressed Yellow Birch. High fungal diversity and much woody debris are present. The herbaceous layer is extremely thick and quite diverse, especially in the moist coves. Herbs are as thick as I have seen anywhere. One rare plant species was noted at this site - Aconitum reclinatum ( Trailing Wolfsbane). Others are likely.
Several sightings were made of a significantly rare bird - Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, which breeds in the area. Considerable Black Bear sign was seen along the Oak ridge tops. A recent logging road cuts through the lower elevations on the north end of the site and accesses clear cut and treatment areas downslope, both of which were Class C - near old growth if not better.
Site 3 Upper Mineral Creek
Class B 240 acres
4200 ' - 5600' elevation
The site is contained in compartment 19 of Toecane Ranger District and includes essentially all of stands 3 and 4. The site is within the timber base. The Blue Ridge Parkway borders the entire southern high rim and the site is bordered on the west by Forest Service Road 63. It is separated from site 2 by the Forest Service road.
Dates visited were: 7/6/98, 8/23/98, 10/5/98, 12/ 15/98
This site consists entirely of Northern Hardwoods community, dominated by Yellow Birch and American Beech at the higher elevations and containing significant amounts of Sugar Maple, Yellow Buckeye and Black Cherry, all more abundant toward the lower slopes. Some Northern Red Oaks are present on the drier small ridges. The site is generally a north-facing slope, steep and rocky. It is bisected by numerous small ravines with running water as well as the two main tributaries of Mineral Creek, which form more significant coves. The site is quite uniform, and a diverse and high quality old growth Northern Hardwoods community. Parts of the site exhibit variants of the community type, especially Beech stands and boulderfields. Large Rhododendron thickets are common. Most of the larger trees are Yellow Birch. I measured 25 trees that measured between 30 and 47 inches DBH. Six Sugar Maples, two Black Cherry and four Yellow Buckeye were measured which exceeded 30 inches DBH. Eight core samples were taken, with ages of 180, 173, 162, and 140 years for Yellow Birch, 115 and 118 years for American Beech, 210 and 151 years for Sugar Maple. All ages were extrapolated somewhat, but are fairly accurate. Several others were attempted that could not be read well, although they appeared to be similar to the above. I found large Yellow Birch to be difficult to age by coring. Basal area measures were between 90 - 120 sq.ft./acre.
In some parts of this site, there is evidence of fire about 35 -40 years ago. This is particularly obvious on the west end along FS road 63, where Large Fire cherries can be seen. This fire apparently did not do large-scale damage within the site. Sites such as this one rarely dry out enough for a very hot fire to get going. An old roadway extends east from the vicinity of Beetree and Bearpen Gap. This is a remnant of some logging that must have occurred in parts of the area, but little sign of other activity is present.
There is a lot of tree mortality occurring at this site. A large proportion of American Beech is already dead and numerous large old Yellow Birch were dead or dying. This condition is common throughout the watershed. Much of the canopy has opened, making for explosive shrub/sapling growth, especially Mountain Maple and Blackberry. Dead and down trees are abundant and fungi counts are high. Herbaceous density and diversity are very high in this community, except where Rhododendron thickets drown the herbs out. Many boulderfields and rocky patches occur, covered with dense, moist moss mats. The shrub layer is particularly dense, even where Rhododendron is absent, replaced by Hobblebush (Viburnum alnifolium). Several rare plant species occur within the site, including Aconitum reclinatum (Wolfsbane), Disporum maculatum ((Spotted Mandarin), Coreopsis latifolia (Broadleaf Coreopsis) and a very rare Federally listed lichen, Gymnoderma lineare. I have collected two rare small mammals, Sorex dispar (Rock Shrew) and Sorex palustris (Water Shrew) within or just downslope of this site.
Site 4. Carter Creek
Class A 1000 acres Class B 200 acres
3400 ' - 6080 ' elevation
Most of this site is included in a special management area and has special designation as the Craggy Scenic Area. This has formed the basic core of past proposals by US Forest Service and others to gain Wilderness Status. So far these proposals have not been successful, but the site remains a special management area and out of the timber base. It is surrounded by large amounts of mature, near old growth forests and would serve as the centerpiece for any future wilderness or specially designated Big Ivy areas. This is by far the most significant, pristine, unique and largest old growth patch in the Ivy Watershed. This site (4) comprises the whole of compartment 16 of Toecane District and about 100 acres along Bullhead Ridge - stands 8 and 6 of compartment 15. The site is bordered on the south by the Blue Ridge Parkway and extends to the highest point in the watershed, 6080 ft. at the summit of Craggy Dome.
Dates visited were: 7/24/98, 7/30/98, 8/16/98, 8/17/98, 9/19/98
This site occupies the watershed of Waterfall Creek, a large drainage sloping to the north-northwest. There are two major ridges that bound the area on east and west, with smaller sections extending down the opposite sides of each ridge. The area is very steep and rugged and it is easy to see why logging access was difficult. Slopes frequently exceed 35 degrees and can be much steeper. The drainages are deeply entrenched, and several waterfalls occur, including well-known and frequently visited Douglas Falls (Carter Creek Falls). Several different community types occur within the site. Perhaps the most unique and important is the Canadian Hemlock community. This occurs in several parts. Most notably a large Hemlock grove occupies about 80 acres in the very center of the site. This is contiguous with another band of Hemlock along Spruce Pine Ridge, although here it is more a mixed Hemlock-Oak stand. On the northern end and separated slightly from the others is a smaller, somewhat younger Hemlock stand. Together the Hemlock dominated portion of the site exceeds 200 acres. This is certainly the largest extent of Hemlock in the Big Ivy Watershed and unique to this part of the Craggy Mountains.
Topographically, the Hemlock community is interesting, as it cuts across the open northwest-facing slope, enters the steep ravine and follows along one main ridge. As far as I am aware, the ecological distribution of the Hemlock community on this site is unusual and unexplained. Many very large Hemlocks occur within this community. The upper elevations of the site contain extensive Northern Hardwoods community, dominated by Yellow Birch and American Beech. Considerable amounts of Yellow Buckeye and large Black Cherry are important components as well. This is an outstanding example of the Northern Hardwoods community type. Along the ridge tops and west facing slopes are outstanding Red Oak communities, with very large trees. In some of the coves at lower elevations on the site, pockets of Acidic Cove and Rich Cove occur, although these largely mark the point of transition to lower accessible slopes where logging occurred. This area is bisected by a foot trail going to Douglas Falls from near Craggy Pinnacle on the Blue Ridge Parkway and connecting to the end of Forest Service Road 74. This has been a long time hiking destination although very few people ever leave the trail. Another trail descends along part of Waterfall Creek. Selective logging was done in the lowest reaches, accessed along Waterfall Creek Trail.
Within the Canadian Hemlock Community, many individual trees exceed 48 inches DBH with the largest I found being 61 inches. Many large specimens occur along Spruce Pine Ridge. Cut logs that have fallen across the trail indicate ages of 200 - 310 years. Mixed within the Hemlocks are large Northern Red Oaks, many of which exceed 40 inches DBH. The largest I measured were 51, 57, and 49 inches. Cores taken and cut logs indicate several Oaks were 310 - 325 years old. Within the Northern Hardwoods, I measured Yellow Birches at 52, 55, 58, and 47 inches DBH. Many more are in excess of 36 inches DBH. Two large Black Cherries measure 44 and 48 inches DBH. Sugar Maples exceeding 36 inches DBH are common. I measured four at 38 - 41 inches DBH.
There is a lot of tree mortality occurring within this site, primarily in Yellow Birch and American Beech. This is similar to what is happening at other high elevation sections of the Ivy watershed and elsewhere in the region.
Herbaceous diversity is quite varied within this large site. So much of the area is covered with ericacious shrubs, which tend to exclude much herbaceous growth. In other places, however, the herbaceous layer is outstanding, being both highly diverse and high in coverage values. Several rare plant species were seen or have been noted in the past from within the site. These include Goodyera repens (Alpine Rattlesnake Plantain), Aconitum reclinatum (Trailing Wolfsbane), Panax quinquefolius (Ginseng), Platanthera grandiflora (Purple Fringed Orchid), Coreopsis latifolia (Broadleaf Coreopsis), Phagopteris connectilis (Northern Beech Fern), and Parnassia asarifolia (Grass of Parnassus). Several others occur at or near the top of Craggy Pinnacle a nationally significant site on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and technically within this site.
On the lower slopes of this site there is a large amount of dead Chestnut litter as well as high amounts of Chestnut sprouts. This is evidence of the once dominant role the species played in some forest communities. Most west facing slopes in this site below about 5000' show a great amount of this species.
Site 8. Flat Spring Knob
Class A 200 acres Class B 180 acres Class C 100 acres
4000' - 5990' elevation
This site is comprised of several stands in compartment 3 of Toecane District. This includes all of stands 12, 20, 22, 24, 25 and 26 and parts of stands 7 and 14. With the exception of the small tract in stand 7, all of the area is in the timber base, but much of it is relatively inaccessible. The small patch is isolated along NC 197 well down slope. This unit is a registered Natural Heritage site. A recent logging road occurs along the western boundary of about half of the main site and below it.
Dates visited were: 7/27/98, 8/4/98, 10/31/98, 12/28/98
This site consists of a series of steep north and northwest facing coves and slopes on the north and northwest face of Big Butt Mountain and Flat Spring Knob. It is drained by the headwaters of Big Ivy Creek and Straight Creek. The site has some high quality Class A old growth - at least 180 -200 acres, and possibly more. The site is very steep and rugged with many deep ravines filled with large and small boulders. The steepness and rugged topography result in an area that is unusually protected and which maintains a cool and moist microenvironment. I have included here a small but highly significant patch of old growth that occurs as an isolated stand some ways down slope to the west. It is within the same small watershed
Most of the site contains Northern Hardwood Forest community. The dominant trees here are Yellow Birch, American Beech and Yellow Buckeye. Also present are some White Ash, Sugar Maple and Black Cherry. I measured numerous, very large Yellow Birch trees ranging from 30 - 45 inches DBH. Ages are difficult to ascertain on such large, often hollow trees such as these. Corings of these trees gave indications of ages often exceeding 200 years. American Beech, which measured 18 and 20 inches DBH, had ages of 122 and 115 years respectively. I measured Sugar Maples of 40, 42, and 34 inches DBH. Black Cherries were found that measured 30 and 26 inches DBH. Yellow Buckeye measured 32 and 39 inches DBH. All of these trees were thought to be representative and probably others of equal size or larger can be found throughout the better parts of the site. One misshapen Sugar Maple measured 52 inches DBH. The larger Birch trees seemed to occur where deeper soil pockets have accumulated. Yellow Birch is also about the only tree that occurs within the boulderfields and rockiest areas. Most basal area measurements were about 110 - 130 sq.ft./acre, but that gives no good impression of community structure, especially where the substrate consists mostly of rock and trees are often perched in moss beds and within rock crevices. This site seems to have less recent mortality and relatively little ice and wind damage. There is considerable dead and down woody debris and many nurse logs with fungi and seedlings associated. Pits and mounds are obvious. The soil is deep and rich in places, but very thin in the rocky ravines. The herbaceous layer of the Northern Hardwoods community is diverse and dense, but is so interrupted by rocks that the herbaceous layer seems quite patchy. Mosses and lichens are among the dominant visible elements in this community.
The north end of the site, which has more western facing slopes, has some high quality Northern Red Oak Forest community. This portion consists of about 50 acres of almost pure Northern Red Oak stand. No very large trees were observed, but there is no evidence of past cutting or disturbance. Measurements of representative trees (all Northern Red Oak) and core ages were 28 inches DBH, 115 years; 28 inches DBH, 150 years; 30 inches DBH., 141 years; 30 inches DBH, 125 years; 34 inches DBH, 157 years; and 32 DBH inches 186 years. The slopes in this portion are less steep and much drier with surface rock common but fewer large boulders. There are many down Chestnut logs present and sprouts are an important part of the understory. Many Oaks in the 16 - 18 inch class of about 65 to 70 years correspond to the time of Chestnut die off. Basal area measurements of 100 - 170 sq.ft./acre were obtained in the Oak community. Herbaceous density and diversity in the Oak communities here is moderate, probably reflecting the higher elevation as much as any indication of old conditions of the stand.
There is no sign of human disturbance in most of the site. There are a few stumps above the new logging road, but this road generally defines the boundary of old growth.
Rare species that I observed at this site are Gnome-fingered Lichen (Gymnoderma lineare) and Trailing Wolfsbane (Aconitum reclinatum). This last species is normally confined to the vicinity of rocky streambeds but within this site a huge amount occurs on the rich slopes below and around Flat Spring Knob. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are known to nest within the Oak portions of this site.
The small isolated patch down slope is actually one of the more important portions of old growth in Big Ivy. It is one of the few examples of true Rich Cove Forest community. Although small, this site contains some very large, tall, canopy trees, and an extremely rich herbaceous layer. The dominant tree species are Sugar Maple, Yellow Buckeye, White Ash, Beech, and Yellow Poplar. Several large specimens each of Sugar Maple, Yellow Poplar, and Buckeye are in the range of 36- 48 inches DBH. Some of these trees have been cored by researchers in the past and ages of 200-275 years obtained. The herbaceous layer is very diverse and high in cover values. Several rare or unusual plant species are known from this site, including Hydrastis canadensis(Goldenseal), Diplazium pycnocarpon (Glade Fern), Disporum maculatum (Spotted Mandarin), Asplenium rhizophyllum (Walking Fern) and Panax quinquefolius (Ginseng). This small site is almost surrounded by a state highway, a clearcut, and a logging road. However, in the larger context, most of the nearby forest stands are of fairly old age, and good candidates for old growth restoration. This small stand of old growth could serve as the nucleus for larger patches as well as a reservoir for the species found in such Rich Cove sites. There are several threats to this site, including future road widening and encroachment by exotic plant species from the nearby disturbed areas and corridors. Despite its small size and vulnerability, this site should be recognized as an exemplary old growth remnant. It is similar to the well-known Walker Cove Research Natural Area, with some differences.
Site 9. Coxcomb Mountain
Class B 200 acres
3400' - 5300' elevation
This site is included within compartment 1 and 2 of US Forest Service Toecane District. It is comprised of stand 1 and parts of stand 2 in compartment 1, stands 10, 19, 22 and part of 14 of compartment 2. All of the site is included in the timber base at present. The site is bounded by private property on the west and northwest and by recent roads and clearcutting on the east and south.
Dates visited were: 8/22/98, 9/6/98/, 12/29/98 10/13/98
The site occupies the south and east slopes of a large ridge connecting Coxcomb Mountain and Ivy Knob. This ridge has steep slopes and rocky outcrops. A lot of recent logging has occurred on the lower slopes of this ridge. A road put in in the 1980s crosses the ridge and bisects the site. Little water occurs on the site. What there is drains into the North Fork of Ivy Creek and Ogle Creek. Four 1980s clearcuts border this patch of old growth. There is an old trail which follows the main ridge line and joins Ogle Meadows at higher elevations where grazing has occurred up until recent times. Historical records indicate grazing was conducted at Ogle Meadows as early as 1810. This may well have been an access route, but it is only a faint trail at present.
Almost all of the site is dominated by a mix of Oak community. At higher elevations on Coxcomb Mountain Northern Red Oak predominates and at lower elevations Chestnut Oak is more important. White Oak and Scarlet Oak are mixed throughout and are important components of the canopy. As in most such Oak communities, evergreen heaths dominate the shrub layer. The largest trees I found occur on the southwest slopes of Coxcomb Mountain, mostly White Oak and Northern Red Oak. I cored several individuals and also was able to age recently cut trees on the edges of clearcuts and obtained ages representative of Oaks within the old growth site. The largest Northern Red Oaks were 46 and 44 inches DBH. Other Northern Red Oaks were aged at 155 years (33 inches DBH), 190+ years (40 inches DBH), 137 years (30 inches DBH). White Oak ages obtained were 145 years (28 inches DBH), 153 years (27 inches DBH). I also measured two White Oaks 41 and 44 inches DBH which were mostly hollow. Chestnut Oaks measured were 28, 33 and 38 inches DBH. Basal areas were 100 - 120 sq.ft./acre. In the Oak communities herbaceous density was quite low, which is not unexpected. The diversity of herbs was moderate, again in keeping with expected patterns. The soils here are shallow, rocky and acidic, all of which affect herbaceous conditions
No obvious signs of human disturbance were seen. No stumps were noted except at irregular points along the lower boundary. At this site it was difficult to know where the boundary between old growth and younger forest was. Much of this lower area seems to have fewer big trees but there is no obvious boundary or disturbed parts. Many down Chestnut logs are present and sprouts form a major part of the understory. American Chestnut obviously was once a dominant canopy tree here and current forest conditions reflect this shift.
In the Ivy Knob section on the south end of the site, several small coves occur which have a much more luxuriant herbaceous layer and a canopy that contains more mesic associated species such as Sugar Maple. Only a few large Sugar Maples occur but these coves are apparently of the same age as the older Oak forest. These Sugar Maple coves constitute an unusual community type alternating with small Oak dominated ridges. Such mesic concentrations are rare on south facing slopes. These areas are perhaps associated with an amphibolite dike which crosses the Ogle Creek drainage somewhat downslope. These less acidic or basic rocks give rise to soils which are nutrient rich and can support greater herbaceous diversity. Ivy Knob also has an interesting rocky outcrop with several rare species. As a whole the site, especially the mesic mafic coves on the southwest, has several rare plant species, namely Disporum maculatum (Spotted Mandarin), Silene ovata (Mountain Catchfly), Senesio millifolium (Divided-leaf Ragwort), Panax quinquifolia (Ginseng), Dodecatheon meadia (Shooting Star), Draba ramosissima (Branching Draba). Two timber rattlesnakes were observed on the rocky outcrops of Ivy Knob.
Site 10. High Knob
Class B 110 acres Class C 300+ acres
4200' - 4600' elevation
This site consists of three units, slightly separated but centered around High Knob. This includes stands 3 and 4 of compartment 8 and stands 8 and 12 of compartment 4, Toecane District. All of these units are in the timber base.
Dates visited were: 9/22/98, 9/27/98, 11/17/98
This site consists of three main units, two of which occupy the east and northwest slopes of High Knob. The third occupies the north slope of Pig Pen Knob, just west of High Knob. These three units, while separated, are surrounded by forests that are approaching old growth in many parts and the units could form the nucleus for a larger old growth assemblage. The units of this site are drained by the headwaters of both North Fork of the Ivy Creek (Pig Pen Creek) and Corner Rock Creek. The two easternmost units occur mostly along the ridge tops and are made up of Oak Forest communities. Three Oak species are common and mixed here, including Chestnut Oak, Northern Red Oak and White Oak. The largest trees measured at these sites were Chestnut Oaks of 30 to 34 inches DBH. Only one Chestnut Oak was cored and was found to be 138 years old. Northern Red Oaks along these ridges exceeding 30 inches DBH had been previously cored by others and found to be between 100 and 120 years old. Also present within these sections are sizable American Beech, 20 - 25 inches DBH and Cucumber Tree, 24 -30 inches DBH. One American Beech (21 inches DBH) was aged at about 120 years.
Herbaceous diversity of these sections range from low to moderately high with sections on the northern and eastern slopes being the highest.
Probably the most noteworthy portion of this site is the cove on the north side of Pig Pen Knob. The community here is a good representative of Rich Cove Forest and perhaps blends into Northern Hardwoods. This is an exceedingly rich and diverse patch, with herbaceous diversity and densities that rival any old growth stands in the area. Soils in this cove are especially deep and rich for the area, which probably accounts for the rich herb flora. The presence of some amount of amphibolite rock, as seen in small surface samples is another indication of less acidic and high cation nutrients. The primary canopy tree species include Sugar Maple, Yellow Buckeye, Yellow Birch, American Beech, White Ash, Basswood, Northern Red Oak, and Black Cherry. I did no coring of these trees, but I measured the diameters of many trees and obtained DBH for Sugar Maple of 30 - 37 inches, American Beech 24 - 31 inches, White Ash 29 and 30 inches, Basswood 18 - 31 inches and Black Cherry 24 - 28 inches.
Several rare plant species occur at this site. These include Silene ovata(Mountain Catchfly), Aconitum reclinatum (Trailing Wolfsbane), Disporum maculatum (Spotted Mandarin),Panax quinquifolius (Ginseng), Coreopsis latifolia (Broadleaf Coreopsis), Hybanthus concolor (Green Violet) and Carex leptonervia. There is a lot of sign for Black Bear in this location, and the populations of many bird species seem to be quite high. This site is at an elevation where both high and low elevation species of birds seem to occur, which adds to the diversity. Many populations of forest interior species seem to be thriving here.
To the west of the Rich Cove area is a series of very steep rocky ravines that also seem to fit into the old growth complex. The trees do not stand out as especially large in diameter, but I was impressed by the high canopy and stratification. These small additions certainly have many old growth characteristics. The surrounding and intervening stands still retain some signs of prior logging in the form of old road remains and stumps, but these do not extend to the ridges or the Pig Pen cove.
Most of the forest stands surrounding High Knob could be classed as near old growth, and certainly should be pursued as sites for restoration. The older parts are separated only by slightly younger stands. These younger stands retain most of the same diversity of both plant and animal species as the old growth. Recovery of the slightly younger stands in well advanced. Before long this whole area could become a large contiguous old growth area. The potential should be recognized. The High Knob area is not much separated from high quality old growth areas near Big Butt. Maintaining and reestablishing connectivity between the high elevation old growth forests around Big Butt and the sites at and surrounding High Knob would cover a wide array of forest types and restore a large block of old growth. This should be a high priority for any old growth protection efforts in Big Ivy.
Site 7. Corner Rock Creek
Class B 200 acres
4600' - 5990' elevation
The Corner Rock Creek site is contained within compartment 8 of Toecane District and consists of all of stands 11, parts of 12 and 9. All of the site is in the timber base. The steep slopes make it considered unsuitable for timber harvest. Clearcutting has occurred on the lower slopes below the site, but does not extend to the site boundary. The private property found east of the site on the other side of the main ridge appears to have old growth forest. The eastern slope of the ridge is within the Cane River Watershed.
Dates visited were: 9/1/98, 11/27/98 and several previous visits
This site is located on the headwaters of Corner Rock Creek along the west facing slopes of the ridge connecting Big Butt and Little Butt Mountains. The very steep slopes of around 40 - 45 degrees contain much exfoliating rock and large boulders, outcrops and several nearly vertical cliff faces. Much of the valley directly below was repeatedly logged prior to US Forest Service acquisition in the 1940s. There are several recent clearcuts as well. The steepness and difficult access probably prevented anything but selective logging of these higher slopes. There is no sign of roads or stumps within the site.
Most of the site is occupied by a combination of High Elevation Red Oak
Forest community and relatively dry Northern Hardwood Forest community.
Both forest conditions contain very large amounts of heath in the shrub
layer. Many of the trees appear more gnarled and stunted than other similar
high elevation sites in the Craggy Mountains. The soils are very thin and
this, combined with the steepness of the slope and more xeric exposures,
has generally resulted in less impressive old growth northern hardwoods.
There is also a greater mixing of Northern Red Oak with typical northern
hardwood species so that Northern Red Oak and Yellow Birch are approximately
codominant in the canopy. Chestnut Oak is more numerous at the lower edges
of this site. The largest trees measured and cored here are Northern Red
Oak, 33 inches DBH and 165 years, 31 inches DBH and 158 years, 27 inches
DBH and 128 years, 26 inches DBH and 160+ years. Yellow Birch was measured
at 43 inches DBH and 120+ years, 30 inches DBH and 110 years, 18 inches
DBH and 108 years. A Sweet Birch, 30 inches DBH, was 137 years. Chestnut
Oaks were measured at 39 inches DBH and 130+ years and 29 inches DBH and
190 years. Several smaller Oaks, 15 - 20 inches DBH yielded ages in excess
of 100 years. The northern end of the site contains a higher proportion
of Northern Red Oak, but the extent and relationship of the communities
were not carefully checked. The difficulty of working on such extreme slopes
and terrain makes cursory surveys about the only practical method of study
without investment of large amounts of time. On the south end, Little Andy
Ridge was not checked carefully and may well have more old growth. This
ridge has apparently been used to access the higher Brush Fence Ridge where
grazing occurred in the past at least to some extent.
Locust Pen Gap, on this ridge, shows evidence of clearing as indicated by the name.
Red Spruce extends into the site sparsely in the upper elevations mixing with the Northern hardwoods in somewhat of an ecotonal situation. This site, together with site number 6, which is contiguous to the south, shows an interesting ecological pattern. One would expect Red Spruce at elevations along any ridge above 5200', but in these two sites Spruce is sparse. This reflects a long term dynamic pattern in local forest systems. One reason for preserving old growth is to study such patterns. This site offers a good opportunity to study long term forest dynamics.
There is evidence of logging extending to the lower boundaries and makes the identification of this boundary difficult. Although there is no evidence of roads extending to the higher elevations, some logs were probably skidded down the steep slopes. There is evidence of fire along the upper ridge. Charred stumps are present and this is also an area where Rhododendron heath balds are fairly extensive indicating a possible connection of fire with this community.
Two rare bird species have been observed during the breeding season in the upper portions of this site associated with the heath community. These are Magnolia Warbler and Alder Flycatcher, both northern species with high elevation range extensions into Western North Carolina. It must be said, however, that the occurrence of these birds is not likely related to old growth forest but to early successional forest stages and high elevations.
Site 6. Point Misery
Class B 180 acres
4400' - 5700' elevation
This site consists of stands 3 and 4 of compartment 8 Toecane District. All of the site is included in the timber base. A large system road put in in the late 1980s at approximately 4200' runs just below this site giving logging access to the lower parts.
Dates visited were: 9/15/98 and 11/6/98
The site is located at the highest elevation on the watershed of Little
It is located on extremely steep slopes (up to 60 degrees) and rugged topography with many rock outcrops. It is bounded on the north by Little Andy Ridge, on the east by Brush Fence Ridge, the ridge connecting Little Butt and Point Misery. The southern boundary is along Big Andy Ridge. It is contiguous on the north side with site 7 and on the south with parts of site 5. I have used an arbitrary boundary separating these sites along major ridges which seems a convenient way to describe the sites. The western or lower elevation boundary is somewhat indistinct. The US Forest Service CISC database indicates older stands extending downslope to about 4200', however I found some evidence of cut stumps and few large trees on these stands. I could only confirm old growth observed above about 5000', except where it extends down to 4400' in the vicinity of Big Andy Ridge. There certainly may be more qualifying old growth here than I report.
The Point Misery site contains mostly Northern Hardwood Forest community. In the vicinity of Point Misery there is considerable amount of Red Spruce Forest and Red Spruce mixed with Northern Hardwood. For the overall site the primary large tree species include Yellow Birch, Canadian Hemlock, Yellow Buckeye, Sugar Maple, Northern Red Oak and Black Cherry. The largest trees measured here were Yellow Birches. Ten trees measured exceeded 30 inches DBH (52, 46, 44, 39, 37, 37, 32, 32, 32, 30). Several large Canadian Hemlocks measured 33, 38 and 46 inches DBH. No cores were taken within this site but the trees are probably comparable in age to similar adjacent sites where similar size trees were aged at 130 - 150 + years. Basal area measures were taken which indicated 80 - 160 sq.ft./acre. Portions of the site with thick Spruce groves had high basal areas and other areas with large Yellow Birch had low basal areas. This demonstrates little correlation of basal area and old growth, at least in Northern Hardwoods.
Some natural disturbance has occurred along parts of the high ridge. I do not see evidence of human activities or fire. This disturbance may represent the effects of blow downs from wind or ice and/or diseases in the past. Lots of ice damage has recently occurred in the northern parts of the site and the effects of disease on Yellow Birch and Beech can be seen as well, although less than on some other sites in the Craggies. Openings in the canopy have resulted in explosive growth of Blackberry and other weedy shrub and herbaceous species.
There are large amounts of down woody debris and large decomposing logs. Pits and mounds are not as evident as in other sites, perhaps a result of the rocky shallow soils and tendency of Yellow Birch to root on perched locations.
Herb diversity is very high as is typical of moist high elevation sites and there is very dense cover of many species. Some species such as Streptopus roseum are more abundant here than I have ever seen elsewhere. The amounts of this uncommon plant are impressive. In parts the dense Spruce and Fir sapling growth, particularly on Point Misery, precludes heavy herb cover.
Two rare plant species were located on previous visits to this site. These are Gymnoderma lineare (Gnome-fingered Lichen) and Streptopus amplexifolius (White Twisted Stalk). Also known from the forest along the top of this ridge are Northern Flying Squirrel and Saw-whet Owl and I have observed both within this site in the past.
Site 5. Walker Branch
Class A 60 acres Class B 120 acres Class C 150 acres
3200' - 4400' elevation 5000' - 5700' elevation
This site is a complex one with several units. This old growth is found
on Toecane District compartment 13, stands 3, 4, and parts of 8 and 1, as
well as compartment 12, stands 1 and 5
Part of the site consists of a specially designated area, the Walker Falls Research Natural Area. The rest of the site is in the timber base at present. The highest elevations are largely unsuitable for timber harvest due to steep topography. There have been proposals both within and outside of the Forest Service for some type of protected status for areas adjacent to and near the Research Natural Area. There is a recreational rock-climbing site nearby that could become a part of some set aside complex.
Dates visited were: 8/1/98, 8/26/98, and numerous other previous occasions
This site consists of various subunits located between Big Andy Ridge on the north, Brush Fence Ridge on the east, and Walker Ridge on the south. All of the area is within the watershed of Walker Branch. The site borders the Blue Ridge Parkway along the southeast corner. The area has a complex topography with extremely steep, rocky slopes at the highest elevations, broad coves in the middle sections and steep, deep ravines along Walker Branch. Several different natural communities occur within the site and one specially designated area of primary old growth is included.
The Walker Falls Research Natural Area portion consists of about 60 acres of exemplary Rich Cove Forest with Northern Hardwood elements. This well known site is dominated by Sugar Maple, Yellow Buckeye, American Beech, Basswood and White Ash. Trees here are very large and tall with notable stratification of the forest present. Almost every tree within this stand has been measured by several researchers and many have been cored for age data. The herbaceous layer of this site is exceptionally rich with high diversity and dense coverage for a wide range of herbaceous species. Numerous trees exceed 36 inches DBH, primarily Sugar Maple and Buckeye. Recorded ages for many trees are in excess of 225 - 250 years. This is without question the best example of old growth Cove Forest within the Craggy Mountains and Big Ivy. Its accessibility has made it a point of attraction for scientists, foresters, environmentalists and others. It is in danger of being loved to degradation.
Immediately adjacent to Walker Falls Research Natural Area is additional acreage of similar forest, but which has been logged selectively in the past. The intervening area between the two stands has seen fairly extensive disturbance within the last 50 years. The parts of this stand closer to Walker Branch contain pockets of larger trees and old growth characteristics. At best these pockets should be old growth now or at least on the verge of attaining Class B status. Mixed with Cove Hardwoods in ravines and particularly along Walker Branch are several patches of Cove Forest with a high component of Canadian Hemlock. Some Hemlocks within these patches were found to measure 30 - 45 inches DBH.
Two areas that occur north of Walker Branch contain fine examples of old growth Oak communities dominated primarily by Chestnut Oak. Parts of these stands as well contain Canadian Hemlocks, but to a lesser extent. Carolina Hemlock is present along the dry ridge extending off of Big Andy Ridge at Light Gap. The Carolina Hemlock does not attain large size here but Canadian Hemlocks in access of 36 inches DBH are present. Several of these larger Hemlocks exceed 150 years of age. Also attaining large size within the Oak community is Northern Red Oak 34 +inches DBH, Sweet Birch 26+ inches DBH, Fraser Magnolia 24 - 28 inches DBH and White Oak.
Separated from the parts of the site listed above is a band of Red Spruce-Northern Hardwoods which occurs above 5000' along Brush Fence Ridge. This stand has some very large trees in it of Yellow Birch, Sugar Maple and Red Spruce. Some of this stand has been logged in the past but has recovered well and retains most characteristics of old growth. The area was apparently not heavily logged as many old trees of canopy dominance remain. Several Sugar Maples were cored and found to be 203, 185 and 160+ years respectively. No large Spruces were found that exceed 90 years of age, although they have obtained diameters of more than 24 inches. This is perhaps an indication that Spruce was the primary species cut in this area. A narrow gauge logging railroad passed through Balsam Gap at the south end of this site and access to at least parts of the upper elevations would have been quite easy. A few skid trails are apparent but do not extend throughout the high elevations. I saw no evidence of logging roads on the north end near Point Misery although Spruce diameters are no larger in that vicinity. This higher elevation section is contiguous with similar high elevation sites to the north, (number 6) and is connected to near old growth on the south.
A popular foot trail begins from the Blue Ridge Parkway at the south end of this site and extends along the entire ridge that borders sites 5, 6, 7 and 8. The mixed forest community characteristics that can be observed along this trail exemplify most of the high elevation old growth or near old growth conditions in the middle portions of Big Ivy Watershed.
Numerous rare species of plants and animals occur in the Walker Branch site. These include Aconitum reclinatum (Trailing Wolfsbane), Hydrastis canadensis (Goldenseal), Disporum maculatum (Spotted Mandarin), Streptopus amplexifolius (White Twisted Stalk), Lillium grayii (Gray's Lily), Northern Flying Squirrel, and Saw-whet Owl.
Summary of Old Growth in Big Ivy
There is a considerable amount of old growth forest within the Big Ivy Watershed. The total of the acreages I have used within each site indicates that there are approximately 3250 acres that can legitimately be called old growth. Of this total there are about 1320 acres that quality as Class A. The Class A old growth occurs in five sites: one very small, 7 acres; two small sites of 50 to 60 acres; one of 200 acres; and one large tract of 1000 acres. There probably would be general agreement that all of these qualify as old growth. In the Class B old growth of about 1930 acres, most has seen some effects of human activity of human disturbance in the past. These effects are now almost entirely obliterated and most all characteristics of old growth have been reestablished or maintained. There will always be disagreement from some whether these Class B sites should be considered old growth. I feel that my judgements in this study have been conservative. I am confident that most biologists would agree with my estimates of old growth, both extent and condition. Some more generous or optimistic old growth enthusiasts would undoubtedly see additional areas that should be included. From this study and my previous experience in the Big Ivy area, I believe I have seen most, if not all, of the old growth that occurs here. There may be a few pockets of old growth that might still be discovered but I doubt that these amount to more than a few acres.
Without question there are large areas of Big Ivy that have many old growth characteristics but which lack sufficient age to yet qualify. In the near future many additional sites will be close to attaining restored old growth conditions. Most of the best candidates for passive restoration are close to or surrounding existing old growth sites. If restraint in logging and disturbance is continued these nuclear old growth sites will grow considerably in extent.
The location of old growth in Big Ivy is encouraging. First, the current old growth locations are nearly all found along the high elevation perimeter rim of the watershed and form a nearly contiguous band. In a relatively few years virtually all of the old growth in Big Ivy could be contiguous. Second, there is some old growth in all sections and subwatersheds of Big Ivy. Old growth is not concentrated in a small portion.
Unfortunately, the old growth is concentrated in only a few natural community types. The predominant community is Northern Hardwoods Forest that contains almost all of the Class A old growth. Second in importance are various Oak communities, primarily represented by High Elevation Northern Red Oak communities. These Oak forests are not in as impressive condition, although they certainly qualify as old growth. They have almost all been somewhat altered by natural and human disturbances. Only small amounts of Hemlock and Rich Cove Forest old growth remain.
While the possibility of increase in old growth seems very good, I foresee some problems. I have serious concerns over the health of several dominant canopy species. There is a high degree of mortality occurring in the Northern Hardwood community. Both of the dominant species there are being affected. In some portions a majority of American Beech is dead or dying. Many of the largest Yellow Birch are sick and declining. When seen from a long view the large numbers of dead trees and dead limbs stand out distinctly. From ground level this decline is seen in dramatic tangles of down limbs and trees and an increase in shrubs particularly Blackberry.
The causes of this decline are not clear to me but it apparently involves disease organisms, atmospheric pollutants and possibly insect pests. Some sections of Big Ivy Northern Hardwood old growth particularly in the south end are more affected at present. Some of the most spectacular old growth in Big Ivy is the Hemlock stands along Carter Creek and Spruce Pine Ridge. Infestation of these stands by the Hemlock Adelgid, which is projected to enter this area in the near future, will certainly adversely affect the heart of the largest old growth site. Gypsy moths, which are already sporadically occurring in the North Carolina mountains, are likely to adversely affect Oak communities in particular.
The current small amount of old growth Cove Forest community can be expected to increase under any restoration of middle or low elevation stands. The nucleus and species diversity to restore and maintain Cove Forest is certainly present in Big Ivy. Active planning for old growth protection in the area must focus as much on such restoration as on preserving current sites. The failure to recognize disease and environmental effects on the existing old growth will result in the loss of significant sites.
In sum, the Big Ivy Watershed represents a magnificent, biologically significant area that contains a relatively large amount of old growth forest that should be recognized and protected.