A Summer in the Smokies

A Summer in the Smokies

“There are trees here that stood before our forefathers ever came to this continent; there are brooks that still run as clear as on the day the first pioneer cupped his hand and drank from them.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Today marks the end of my first week at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! I will be living in Gatlinburg, Tennessee for the next 12 weeks, working on vegetation monitoring for the spruce-fir forests of the Smokies. I am extremely excited to explore the beautiful landscapes of the Smokies and learn more about the different forest types and plant communities here.

The Great Smoky Mountains stretches across the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, and is the most visited national park in the country, reaching up to 14 million visitors annually! Driving into the city of Gatlinburg, it is easy to see how well-visited the park is – streets are filled with restaurants, attractions, and shops for tourists. But once you cross the border into the national park, you are surrounded by lush, pristine forests covering the mountaintops. The Smokies are known for its mountainous landscapes as well as its abundant wildlife, such as black bears, elk, and salamanders. The park is considered a biodiversity hotspot! Visitors come to enjoy the great spots for hiking, camping, fishing, birdwatching, and many other recreational activities. Part of the Appalachian Trail runs through the Smokies, following the Tennessee-North Carolina border, making it a popular destination for backpackers.

Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) vs. red spruce (Picea rubens). Fraser fir (left two sprigs) is the dominant overstory species in spruce-fir forests in the upper limit of its range, while red spruce (rightmost sprig) is the dominant overstory species in spruce-fir forests in the lower limit of its range.

My internship this summer focuses on the spruce-fir forests of the Smokies. Spruce-fir forests are located only at high elevations (1,500-2,000 m) along the southern Appalachians (Tennessee, North Carolina, and southwestern Virginia). Red spruce (Picea rubens) is the dominant overstory species in the lower range of the spruce-fir forests (1,675-1890 m), while Fraser firs (Abies fraseri) are the dominant overstory species in the upper range of the spruce-fir forests (over 1,890 m); however, widespread infestation of the balsam woolly adelgid (Adelges piceae) in the late 1950s decimated the population of Fraser firs. These pests feed on the bark tissue of Fraser firs, which causes a reduction in water conduction within the fir, resulting in death within the next 2-7 years. 74% of their remaining Fraser fir population is located within the Great Smoky Mountains! The project we are working on this summer consists of monitoring the status of the Fraser firs within the park. We will be collecting data on five of some of the highest peaks in the Smokies (Clingman’s dome, Mt. Collins, Mt. Sterling, Mt. LeConte, and Mt. Guyot) to study the impacts of the balsam woolly adelgid on the Fraser firs.

We had our first field day this week, where we hiked up to Mt. Collins and started our first plot, identifying and mapping out trees up in the spruce-fir forests. I am thrilled to be a part of this project, and look forward to having more experience in the field and increasing my plant ID & data collection skills, while also having many opportunities for hiking and backpacking through the Great Smoky Mountains!

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