By Mamie Colburn | Photos by Michael Oppenheim
On a foggy, unseasonably warm morning in early spring, a new Henderson County bog volunteer innocently asked his Nature Conservancy team leader, “What do we need the gloves for?” An hour later, his boots stuck in deep, wet mud with thorny greenbrier surrounding him, the reason was painfully obvious.
Mountain bogs can be as unforgiving to human skin as they can be hauntingly beautiful, shrouded in mist with carnivorous plants poking through crumpled leaves. It is this unique water-bound landscape—seemingly out of place in mountain settings—that calls for protection.
The drainage and development of wetlands across the globe has reduced our resident bogs to a fraction of their original extent. In 2014, the US Fish and Wildlife Service created a new Mountain Bogs National Wildlife Refuge to further protect imperiled and often isolated patches of mountain bogs. The first portion of the refuge is located in Ashe County on land donated to the refuge by The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
Southern Appalachian bogs can be home to a variety of carnivorous plants, like the mountain sweet pitcher plant (Sarracennia jonesii), purple pitcher plant (Sarracennia purpurea) or green pitcher plants (Sarracennia oreophila). Mountain bogs can also host the rare bog turtle, smallest and arguably cutest of all turtles found in North America.
“Once protected from development, conservation lands are still threatened by weedy non-native invasive species and changes in hydrology,” says TNC wildlife biologist and stewardship manager Adam Warwick. “These threats challenge bog managers to take an active role in site restoration.”
Active management of TNC’s Henderson County Bog dates back to cattle grazing prior to 1980. Grazing helped keep the bog open and field-like, which helped the pitcher plants receive the sunlight they need to flourish. More recently, goats have been used to control invasive multiflora rose.
Areas of the bog are currently part of a controlled burn put on by TNC’s seasonal burn crew. This 16-person crew—made up of wildland firefighters with a combined 167 years of experience—was formed to bring the benefits of controlled burning to appropriate landscapes.
“A low-intensity surface fire can help reduce the competitors of pitcher plants,” Warwick says. “This kind of burning has been proven to increase the size and flowering of green pitcher plants at other TNC-owned bogs.”
The results of this controlled burn will be shared with The Bog Learning Network (BLN), a group of scientists and land managers co-led by TNC and US Fish and Wildlife Service. The BLN serves as a clearinghouse of local mountain bog restoration and preservation experiences.
At the annual BLN meeting in January at UNC Asheville, professors joined state, federal and private land managers to exchange information about “all things boggy.” Sessions ranged from data-driven hydrologic research to illegal wildlife poaching. BLN members also help one another through Invasive Species Fun Field Days, where members convene at one site to help remove invasives while learning about the bog’s unique features.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of TNC’s purchase and protection of its Henderson County Bog. Hundreds of caring volunteers have worked to protect and steward this and other Southern Appalachian mountain bogs. Sometimes their dedication can be measured in scratches but often it’s more evident in the happy grins of an honest day’s labor for a clear goal. When you preserve space for a unique species, you also protect the web of life around it.
The Nature Conservancy has worked to protect more than 700,000 acres of land across diverse habitats in NC. Learn more about TNC programs at nature.org/nc. Mamie Colburn first worked in bogs 20 years ago as an undergrad at UNCA. Today she leads volunteers and helps care for unique landscapes as the stewardship assistant for TNC’s Southern Blue Ridge program.