Stephanie B. Jeffries: Free the Phoenix: Fire and Rebirth in Linville Gorge

Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests: An Ecological Guide to 30 Great Hikes in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia, by Stephanie B. Jeffries and Thomas R. WentworthWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Stephanie B. Jeffries, coauthor (with Thomas R. Wentworth) of Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests: An Ecological Guide to 30 Great Hikes in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia. This unique hiking guide to the southern Appalachian mountains leads readers to explore the rich forest ecosystems and other natural communities visitors encounter along the trail. Drawing on years of experience guiding forest walks throughout the region, Jeffries and Wentworth invite hikers and nature lovers to see their surroundings in new ways. Readers will learn to decipher clues from the tree canopies, forest floor, and other natural features to appreciate more fully the environmental factors that make the southern Appalachians home to an amazing biodiversity.

In today’s post, Jeffries explores the role of fire in the ongoing life of a southern Appalachian wilderness, Linville Gorge.


“Hike 22 is on fire!”

It was with a mixture of irony and elation that I typed those five words to my co-author, Tom Wentworth, on November 14, 2013.

Not two days prior, we’d submitted the final manuscript for our book, Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests: An Ecological Guide to 30 Great Hikes in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia, to UNC Press. Hike 22 leads to the summit of Table Rock. Now it was burning, the result of a runaway campfire in the Table Rock Picnic Area.

Nighttime photographs shot from across the Gorge dramatized the fiery landscape. Local news sites carried stories with dozens of reader comments lamenting the loss of Linville Gorge’s pristine beauty.

But as we discuss in our Table Rock hike chapter, fire is as essential to Linville Gorge as the wild and scenic river that cut its steep sides. The exposed, dry, rocky summits have always been susceptible to summer lightning strikes, and the pine forests there are dynamic. The Table Mountain pine and pitch pine that dominate these natural communities require fire to persist—they need full sun and mineral soil for germination of their tiny seeds and successful growth of their seedlings.

Table Mountain pine, found only in the southern Appalachians, holds onto years of resin-sealed cones, which open only in the heat of a fire. This remarkable strategy ensures that the seeds are released into the ideal environment for germination. Meanwhile, pitch pine can resprout from burned branches and trunks, so a burnt tree can survive and regenerate after a fire. In addition to these fire-adapted pines, wildflowers such as the federally endangered Heller’s blazing star and mountain golden heather need fire to keep their sunny, rocky habitats open.

Without fire, fleshy, evergreen shrubs like rhododendron and mountain laurel form a dense understory, and shade- and drought-tolerant oaks sprout atop the spongy organic soil and crowd out the pines and other species. This vegetation is fire retardant, so the forest is less likely to burn. Thus the pine forests slowly disappear, as older trees are killed by bark beetle or old age and their seedlings perish in the evergreen thickets. Truth is, Linville Gorge’s gnarly pine forests have been struggling ever since humans began extinguishing fires in the name of preservation.

Controversy rages over fire policy in Linville Gorge, which was the first designated Federal Wilderness in the East with the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. Currently, the policy is to suppress any fires that threaten manmade structures, but to allow lower-intensity lightning-strike fires to burn. The latest management plan proposes prescribed burns in the Gorge to promote pines and rare plants and to reduce fuel loads. Homeowners in the Gingercake Acres development, perched on the eastern rim of the Gorge, understandably worry about risk to their homes. Advocacy organizations like Save the Linville Gorge Wilderness argue that fire destroys the wild character of the landscape. Skeptics scoff that the Forest Service maintains only an illusion of control over something as unpredictable and powerful as fire.

Burning a Federal Wilderness isn’t easy. The Forest Service, which manages the Linville Gorge Wilderness, cannot use any mechanized equipment in maintenance, management, or, in this case, fighting forest fires. Special permission was granted for Forest Service personnel to use chainsaws and even leaf blowers to create a fire line to contain the November 2013 wildfire to just over 2000 acres. Gaining approval to conduct a prescribed burn takes even more effort, with substantial time allowed for public comments, and the current management plan sits in limbo.

The November 2013 wildfire burned hottest near the Chimneys and extended as far north as the Spence Ridge Trail. No manmade structures burned. In May 2014 I descended from the unburned Table Rock summit to the Linville River using the Little Table Rock Trail and the Spence Ridge Trail. I found that the middle elevations, around 2500-3500 ft, burned hottest, and even in those places, the fire was patchy. The higher elevations likely didn’t have enough fuel for the fire to burn hot, and fire at the lower elevations nearer to the Linville River was impeded by the damp thickets of evergreen rhododendron. While the shrubs and small saplings were top-killed in many places, re-sprouting was already occurring in May.

The fire opened the forest in places, benefitting wildflowers that thrived with more sunlight and moisture availability. May was too early to observe pine regeneration, though I could see charred Table Mountain pines with their cones opened by the heat. However, most of the areas where I traveled retained the organic duff layer, not conducive for establishment of pine seedlings. In many ways, then, it seems that the fire may not have been hot or extensive enough to benefit the Gorge forests ecologically.

When the smoke clears, we must recognize that the rugged peaks, outstanding views, unique plant communities, and challenging terrain that we all love at Linville Gorge are part of a fire-dependent landscape. We cannot simply draw a line around the Gorge on a piece of paper and declare it preserved and immutable. The story is a complicated one, but at its center is the truth that fire is a natural and integral part of this treasured landscape.

Stephanie B. Jeffries is teaching assistant professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University. Her book, Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests: An Ecological Guide to 30 Great Hikes in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia, coauthored with Thomas R. Wentworth, is now available. Follow Jeffries on Twitter @scissorsrunning.