Feds seek to protect Southern Appalachian bogs, need public input

(U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)
In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt created the first National Wildlife Refuge to protect brown pelican breeding grounds on the east coast of Florida. The refuge system has since grown to more than 553 refuges across the nation, and now the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposes establishing a refuge to protect Southern Appalachian bogs, one of the nation’s rarest natural habitats.

“National Wildlife Refuges are lands, managed by or in partnership with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, set aside for the conservation of fish, wildlife, and plants,” explained Rick Huffines, deputy regional chief, National Wildlife Refuge System. “Given the rarity of these bogs and their importance to plants and wildlife, creating a refuge to conserve them is a natural fit.”

The proposed refuge would eventually include approximately 23,000 acres scattered across as many as 30 sites in Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Clay, Graham, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Transylvania, Wilkes, and Watauga counties, North Carolina, and Carter and Johnson counties, Tennessee. The Service would work with willing landowners to establish the proposed refuge through several methods, including fee simple purchases, conservation easements, leases, or cooperative agreements with landowners. Project funding would likely come from the Land and Water Conservation Fund which includes money collected from the sale of offshore oil and gas drilling leases.

“A 23,000-acre refuge won’t be created overnight,” continued Huffines. “Many organizations have been involved in protecting bogs for years. Now we’re expanding that conversation to hear from other landowners who might be interested in helping conserve these areas. It’s going to be a long process, based on trust and a deep understanding by all involved.”

The Service has identified 30 conservation partnership areas, containing bogs and surrounding lands, with a total area of approximately 45,000 acres. Within those conservation partnership areas, the Service will reach out to landowners to gauge their interest in bog conservation, ranging from willing landowners selling their property to receiving technical assistance to help manage habitat on their property. Within the 45,000 acres, the Service is authorized to acquire in fee-title or hold conservation easements on approximately 23,000 acres, however that would depend on the willingness of landowners and the availability of funds.

“Western North Carolina is blessed with a lot of conserved land,” noted David Ray, North Carolina mountains program director at The Nature Conservancy. “However, one key missing piece is a comprehensive approach to bog conservation. Several organizations have worked together for years and we’ve had success protecting at least part of many bogs. Creating the refuge will help protect the remainder of those sites and provide a big-picture view when it comes to managing those lands.”

Mountain bogs are among the rarest and most imperiled habitats in the United States. They’re typically small and widely scattered across the landscape, often isolated from other wetlands. Important to wildlife, they’re home to five endangered species and provide habitat for migratory birds and important game animals, including mink, woodcock, ruffed grouse, turkey, and wood duck. Bogs are breeding habitat for many species of amphibians, especially salamanders, for which the Southern Appalachians have the greatest diversity in the nation. In addition to their wildlife importance, bogs provide key services to humans. They’ve a natural capacity for regulating water flow – holding floodwaters like giant sponges then slowly releasing the water, thus decreasing the impacts of floods and droughts.

While some parts of the refuge would likely be too fragile for recreation, the Service anticipates other parts would be open for wildlife-based recreation, including hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, education, and interpretation.

“Because National Wildlife Refuges are dedicated to plant and wildlife conservation, wildlife-based recreation takes precedence over other forms of outdoor recreation,” explained Huffines. “National Wildlife Refuges have a strong tradition of hunting, fishing, and non-consumptive wildlife recreation. While we want to protect sensitive habitat and plants and animals, we anticipate this refuge will provide those opportunities as well.”

The Service is currently seeking public input on the proposed refuge. People can e-mail comments to mountainbogs@fws.gov; mail comments to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 160 Zillicoa St., Asheville, NC 28801; or telephone comments to 828/258-3939. The Service is also hosting a series of open houses to receive comments and answer questions (meetings are not sponsored by the respective local libraries):

• June 26, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Henderson County Public Library in Hendersonville, N.C.;

• June 27, 4:30 pm. to 6:30 p.m. at the Ashe County Public Library in West Jefferson, N.C.;

• July 10, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Macon County Public Library in Franklin, N.C.;

• July 11, 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the Watauga County Public Library in Boone, N.C.

For more information, visit: www.fws.gov/southeast/mountainbogs.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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