Botanist Bob Gale has spent his 45-year career working in and studying the outdoors. Still, there’s always something new to discover. That happened last year when Gale, who serves as ecologist and public lands director for the environmental nonprofit MountainTrue, got involved in a project cataloging the insect larvae that serve as a crucial food source for trout in area streams.
“In all my years, I had done a lot of things outside, but I had never done that particular thing,” Gale recalls. “It was like I was a novice. It was the most exciting thing.”
On Saturday, June 2, local nature lovers seeking a similar thrill of discovery can take part in the Blackrock BioBlitz, a citizen science program that will pair residents with more than a dozen expert naturalists to document the diverse flora and fauna of Sylva’s Pinnacle Park and its highest point, Blackrock Mountain.
“A bioblitz is a one-day event where experts in a particular field gather with nonexperts to collect as much science data as possible,” Gale explains. Anyone can take part, he continues, and the data collected can provide important insights for scientists and land stewards.
Protected by the Mainspring Conservation Trust in 2007 using funding from the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund, Pinnacle Park encompasses a watershed that formerly provided Sylva’s water.
The nearly 1,100-acre property rises from 3,000 feet in elevation at its base to over 5,800 feet. Part of the Plott Balsam mountain range, the park includes 7½ miles of streams and adjoins Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Dennis Desmond, stewardship coordinator for the Mainspring Conservation Trust, says this will be the first broad survey of biodiversity in Pinnacle Park. He’s hoping the effort will “find some new species we don’t know about on the property.” That knowledge, continues Desmond, will help the town of Sylva monitor rare plants and animals to ensure that they’re not disrupted during, for example, the construction of new trails.
Education and awareness are also key aspects of the event, adds Sharon Fouts Taylor, the trust’s executive director, since no one-day blitz can aspire to catalog every component of the study area. “Just to get people out there on the ground is equally important, to have them understand the natural resources and appreciate them,” she says.
“We’re going to be documenting a broad range of life at Pinnacle Park, including butterflies, beetles, aquatic invertebrates, vascular plants, bryophytes, lichens, birds, mammals, mushrooms and more,” says Josh Kelly, MountainTrue’s public lands field biologist.
And when it comes to a bioblitz, notes Gale, “You never know what you’ll find.”
That’s what happened on Bluff Mountain in Madison County in 2016 and 2017, remembers Gale. Located within the Pisgah National Forest and traversed by the Appalachian Trail, the area includes old-growth forest and valuable habitat.
“We found a potentially new species of katydid, a rare lichen that is disjunct from Canada, a population of brown creeper (an uncommon songbird) and North Carolina’s largest population of the rare heart-leaf hedge nettle,” says Kelly.
Those findings were shared with the U.S. Forest Service, which later proposed a special-interest area for Bluff Mountain as part of a forest plan revision that’s currently being reviewed by stakeholders. In addition, notes Kelly, MountainTrue provided rare species data that came out of those surveys to the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, which will preserve it as a resource for possible future scientific research.
Fun in the forest
On June 2, each group of five to 10 citizen scientists will be matched with an expert before fanning out to survey the area. Families with small children in tow, or anyone who prefers a more relaxed pace, can take part in activities closer to the base of the mountain; more ambitious hikers can choose to focus on areas around the summit.
Participants are encouraged to bring at least 2 quarts of water, rain gear, sturdy footwear and lunch. The show will go on even if it rains, but dangerous weather would result in a cancellation, says Kelly. To reduce the impact on the ecosystem, participation is limited to 50 people.
This kind of activity, notes Gale, “gets people out of their offices and away from their computers, spending time with their families and making a connection with the land.” They’ll also have the satisfaction of knowing that the results of the event will contribute to efforts to better understand and protect wild places.
“It’s something that would normally take researchers working on their own days and days, or even weeks, to do,” Gale explains. “You can get a whole lot of information about an area in a very short time.”
Retired Western Carolina University biology professor Dan Pittillo will be one of the experts on hand. Although he hasn’t been part of a public bioblitz before, Pittillo expects to use a sampling procedure that’s similar to methods he’s used in his academic and consulting work. And despite his long experience in the field, he says, “I’m in this to learn more than to teach.”
After the survey wraps up around 4:30 p.m., those who’ve worked up an appetite and a thirst can meet up at Mad Batter Food & Film in Sylva for a post-blitz social.
But the bioblitz is only one of a number of ways that MountainTrue encourages members of the public to get their hands dirty while benefiting the local environment.
Volunteers, for example, have pounded thousands of live stakes — sticks cut from river-dwelling tree species, Gale explains — into the banks of the French Broad River, where they sprout and eventually help control erosion.
Citizens also regularly collect water samples in tributaries of the French Broad. If testing of those samples reveals a concern, MountainTrue’s staff tries to identify the source of the contamination and reports the problem to state authorities. And through the Stream Monitoring Information Exchange, volunteers assess riparian health by sampling for pollution-sensitive insects at assorted stream sites in the French Broad River basin.
MountainTrue volunteers, notes Gale, have also contributed to efforts to protect the region’s ash trees from the emerald ash borer, a non-native pest that can kill the trees in five years or less. Through the Save Our Ashes campaign, volunteers collect data on the trees’ locations and distribution, helping land managers identify areas where chemical treatment might be an economically viable option.
And if you’re curious about the upcoming event, says Kelly, the Pinnacle Park BioBlitz “is a great chance for citizens who are interested in nature to learn from experts and one another. Citizen science is leading to a huge increase in knowledge worldwide. At the same time, he continues, “It represents a democratization of science, in large part due to the advances of the digital age. The prevalence of digital cameras and digital communication allows everyday people to make observations that are valuable to scientists. Participating in a bioblitz is a great way to learn, make a contribution and meet friendly people who are passionate about nature.”
WHAT: Blackrock BioBlitz hosted by MountainTrue and the Mainspring Conservation Trust
WHEN: Saturday, June 2, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
WHERE: Carpool at Bryson Park, 585 Chipper Curve Road, Sylva
WHO: Nature lovers who want to participate in a citizen science event to survey a valuable ecological site. Suitable for all fitness levels. Free.