By Emma Castleberry
The Pisgah Conservancy has partnered with the US Forest Service (USFS) to start a new education and outreach program in Pisgah National Forest called River Rangers. “The goal is to educate visitors to help protect this important environment,” says John Cottingham, executive director of The Pisgah Conservancy. “We have been planning this program for several years. This year’s efforts have been made possible by funding from the USFS, The Pisgah Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, the Lastinger Family Foundation and Clemson University.”
One of the primary motivators for development of the River Rangers program was the less-than-ideal status of the hellbender salamander. “The hellbender is this wonderfully weird, almost dinosaur-like salamander that needs very cold, very clean water with really big rocks to survive,” says lead River Ranger Ericka Hincke. “In NC, they are listed as a species of concern, so there aren’t a whole lot left.” Hellbender habitats are often found in protected areas like the Davidson River. “Over the last few years, the forest has had more visitors than ever,” says Hincke. “In the summertime, people flock to the waters of the forest and habitat disturbance is prevalent.”
Visitors, many of whom aren’t even aware that hellbenders exist, will move rocks to build towers or create dams for swimming holes and tubing chutes. The rocks that are moved are often nesting environments for the hellbender. “Even if the rock is put back where it was found, there’s no guarantee that a hellbender will use it again,” says Hincke. “If we had an official slogan for the summer it would be, ‘Don’t move the rocks.’ We see how aquatic habitats are being disturbed by high usage, and our job is to tell people about what lives in these places they love to play in—like the elusive hellbender or the tiny aquatic insects that live on the bottom of rocks. We educate forest visitors through ranger-led programs and informational tables, and we also talk to people while we are busting up dams and rock towers or picking up trash in picnic areas.”
The rangers themselves are employees of The Pisgah Conservancy under an agreement with the Forest Service. The team includes Hincke; UNCA senior Mary Allen, NCSU junior Cheyana Bassham and Clemson University senior Erin McDaniel. “I have gained valuable knowledge and skills in administering environmental education to a variety of ages while working on restoring natural habitats and making sure the river is cleaned and properly flowing for the many species that rely on it,” says McDaniel. “The most rewarding part of being a River Ranger is seeing the public’s receptive behavior when helping us restore the ecosystem.”
Allen agrees that the experience has given her more confidence to enter a field like environmental education. “I have not only gained experience working with great organizations like the Forest Service, Trout Unlimited and The Pisgah Conservancy but I have also learned better ways to educate the public and experienced interactions with people in a whole new light,” she says.
This summer’s pilot program lasted from May to August to accommodate the students’ schedules. “As we continue this program, I would love to see it become a year-round thing,” says Hincke. Funding is the primary barrier to the future of the program. “This has been a very successful initial effort, but funding will continue to be a challenge,” says Cottingham. “We would love to receive contributions from supporters to help us keep this going next year.”
For more information, visit PisgahConservancy.org.