The Forests of Southern Appalachia

In The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A Naturalist’s Guide to Understanding and Identifying Southern Appalachian Forest Types.

What is biodiversity? Simply put it is the variety of life found in a particular place, and there is a particular place in the backyard of Eastern America renowned for its biodiversity. It is called Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). The Park’s half million acres nurture and protect over 12,000 different life forms both plant and animal, and the search for new life there continues. Referred to by many as wildflower national park, this sanctuary of verdant valleys and rugged peaks supports more kinds of flowering plants than any other national park. It could as easily be called salamander national park with 30 species of these diminutive creatures thriving in its moist hollows, or ancient forest national park with its 100,000 acres of centuries-old undisturbed forest: a claim unrivaled east of the Mississippi River.

This rich but rugged landscape was originally the realm of the Cherokee Indian who hunted its game with stone-tipped arrows and gave its ridges mysterious names like “Frog Place.” The settlers that followed soon learned the rich black ground of valley bottoms yielded corn taller than a man, and that every autumn walnuts, hickory nuts and chestnuts fell in immense numbers from trees a whole family of barefoot kids couldn’t reach around. Young girls knew an Easter Sunday stroll through woods and fields revealed wildflowers in profusion matching the colors of the rainbow. Even the corporate loggers who came later recognized the vast and varied forest riches that could be extracted from this natural sanctuary, where the number and size of valuable lumber trees was staggering.

These mountain forests are among the most varied and diverse to be found anywhere. Nearly every major forest type in the eastern U. S. grows within the Park’s borders, and that brings us to the topic of this book. A good description of what the book is begins by telling what it isn’t. It isn’t a research paper written for publication in a science journal. Neither is it a general guide book to the Smokies. It is something in between. This book attempts to digest much of the immense amount of excellent research conducted on the Park’s forests and condense it into a form more easily understood by individuals interested in becoming actively involved in learning more about the forest treasures found here.

Four important factors have shaped the forests of GSMNP and the southern Appalachians. These factors are elevation, landform, forest age and exotic tree diseases. This book discusses the influence of each factor on the Park’s present-day forests and teaches the reader how to interpret them.

The first chapters define elevation and landform and discuss their role as nature’s tools in shaping mountain forests. Chapter four presents the Forest Finder, a graphical representation of the major forest types of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The forest finder graphically illustrates the influence of elevation and landform on forest types comprising an easy-to-use guide for locating and understanding the forest types encountered on Park visits. The Forest Finder is applicable to all southern Appalachian forests.

Later chapters explain how man’s activities have profoundly affected the forests of GSMNP and other areas of the southern Appalachians. Chapter five shows how farming and logging during the past 200 years cleared the land, turning the forest succession clock back to time zero. The process of forest succession is explained, and the reader learns how to use this knowledge to read the forest and determine its successional stage and approximate age. Chapter eight tells the story of tree diseases from other parts of the world, and how they have devastated GSMNP forests, drastically altering forest makeup.

Other practical skills for learning about the Park’s forests are also included in the book, such as, accessing and printing topographic maps from the internet, measuring trees, pacing distances, sampling the forest, and more. The goal is to equip you, the reader, with practical knowledge and skill to help you develop a deeper level of understanding, enjoyment and appreciation for the forests of GSMNP, the world’s stellar example of southern Appalachian forests.

This book assists the reader in learning to identify many of the trees found in the Park, a rewarding but possibly daunting prospect for the beginner. The book contains a list of the Park’s major trees, as well as sections describing most of them. We challenge the reader to dive in head-first and embrace wholeheartedly the study 8 of GSMNP trees and the forests where they grow. The intellectual, recreational and emotional paybacks are immense and life changing.