Biodiverse: WNC’s unique environment a major topic at multi-state economic development conference

The idea of using the region’s readily accessible natural resources in daily life is nothing new in the mountains, a place where people have traditionally turned plants and animals into everything from medicine to baskets to clothes. Today, officials are pondering whether those resources could be used on a larger scale to establish a natural products industry.

Using biodiversity as a tool for economic development was a major topic of discussion at a recent conference of the Tennessee Valley Corridor, attended by scientists, naturalists and economic development officials from several states.

“If you look at Western North Carolina, it has its own unique bioregion — so we have to take advantage of what’s here in the mountains,” said Daniel Simberloff, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee and one of the speakers at the conference.

What is here is an astoundingly diverse array of flora and fauna. To get a picture of just how diverse the region is, consider that an ongoing study in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has uncovered 890 new species in the Park as well as 6,129 species not previously thought to dwell there.

Other communities have successfully turned their diverse environment into a tool for economic development, said Cheryl McMurray, director of the Bent Creek Institute in Asheville. Utah is one. The state has the largest cluster of naturalist product companies in the United States — 177 companies are responsible for 18,000 jobs and a multi-billion dollar industry.

Already, groups here are studying the economic possibilities presented by the Appalachian region’s biodiversity. One is the Bent Creek Institute in Asheville, which researches the medicinal properties of native plants. The institute is currently examining twelve regionally located medicinal plants with cancer-fighting properties, McMurray told audience members.

The community college system is also getting on board with the burgeoning natural products industry, according to Jonathan Lawrie, an AB Tech professor who addressed the audience. Haywood Community College received a grant to research outdoor cultivation of medicinal plants. Students there are also working to reproduce endangered plants through micropropogation, basically using leaves instead of seeds to create a new plant. In doing so, they hope to preserve the biodiversity of the region.

Students at the Bionetwork Natural Products Lab at AB Tech test micropropogated plants to prove their potency is equivalent to those that grow in the wild and are imported from other places, like China.

“It’s important to leave the native plants alone and stop people form harvesting and destroying habitats,” said Lawrie. “You want to demonstrate that the plants that are cultivated are equivalent to the wild plants, and preserve biodiversity by not harvesting the wild ones.”

The success of a natural products industry in Western North Carolina is contingent upon the region’s sustained biodiversity, which already faces several threats. One high-profile species under siege is the hemlock tree, which is being killed off by an invasive bug called the wooly adelgid. If the hemlock disappears, effects on the ecosystem could be far-reaching.

“What will be the impact on other species as hemlocks disappear?” asked Simberloff.

For example, said Simberloff, two species of beetle have been discovered that eat snails found mostly in hemlock litter. As hemlocks die out, the beetles will lose their food source.

McMurray said the region’s biodiversity means species could be dying out that haven’t even been discovered.

“What’s out there that we’re losing before we even know about it?” she questioned.

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