Archived Outdoors

Planning for plants: Botanical survey complete for Pinnacle Park

Ecologists found healthy populations of aquatic bugs in Pinnacle Park. Equinox Environmental photo Ecologists found healthy populations of aquatic bugs in Pinnacle Park. Equinox Environmental photo

Sylva has received the results of an in-depth botanical survey of Pinnacle Park revealing that the property is a bonanza of biodiversity. Now, the town is partnering with Jackson County and the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority to fund a master plan implementing survey recommendations.    

“The overarching message from Equinox to the town, to the foundation, is you have a gem,” said Owen Carson, plant ecologist for the Ashville based consulting, planning and design firm Equinox Environmental, in a presentation to the board Thursday, April 13. “You have a wonderful, amazing place with a lot of really special and important species, assemblages of natural communities, water resources and wildlife. And you have an opportunity at this point in time to take a positive step in the stewardship and management of Pinnacle Park. Hopefully this document and all it contains will help the town and the foundation move forward into the next phase of planning for Pinnacle Park.”

Conservation at Pinnacle Park

Pinnacle Park comprises just under 1,800 acres of land situated near Sylva and is boarded by other conserved lands. In 2007, the Fisher Creek Tract, about 1,100 acres of the former town watershed, was placed under a conservation easement and opened to the public for recreation shortly thereafter.

The Blackrock Tract, about 435 acres abutting the original Pinnacle Park property on the crest of the Plott Balsam Mountains, had previously been slated for development before those plans were abandoned. In 2016, The Conservation Fund started looking for partners to help conserve the 912-acre property. Mainspring Conservation Trust protected it under a conservation easement and Sylva acquired the 435-acre Blackrock Tract  in 2019 after the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians purchased the adjacent 471-acre Shut-In Creek Tract, completing the complex conservation deal.  

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The view stretches out from the recently conserved Blackrock Tract. Holly Kays photo

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On the other side of the main Pinnacle Park property is the Dills Creek Tract , also a failed development. Mainspring is currently working on getting this 246-acre piece of land into a conservation easement and transferring it to the town.

“This is a large tract of land in a culturally and biologically important part of the world, protected from failed attempts of development,” said Carson. “The work that Mainspring has done and the Town of Sylva and [The] Conservation Fund and all the other conservation partners has been really important to get this land acquired and protected and added for public experience.”

In 2021, the Pinnacle Park Foundation released a request for proposals to conduct a botanical survey of the park prior to building any additional trails and amenities.

“We proposed to do a little more than a botanical inventory,” said Carson. “We proposed to use our collective expertise to assess water quality, wildlife, plants, natural communities and included in that are assessments of rare species. We also looked at developing recommendations for stewardship of some of those elements contained within the property.”

Botanical survey results

In combination with its own data gathering, Equinox used data provided by Pinnacle Park Foundation members and volunteers, as well as state and national sources like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Heritage Program and the state’s Spatial Data Download program.

“A lot of Pinnacle Park Foundation members have done a lot of personal recreating and personal inventorying out there and provided a lot of really important data for this report that could be interpreted and analyzed,” said Carson.

The results of the survey show Pinnacle Park contains at least 25 different natural community types, some of which are very specific to certain topographic or elevational areas. The park contains over 19 miles of streams and seeps with excellent water quality and bio classification ratings and several rare species of vascular plants.

A natural community is a distinct and recurring assemblage of populations of plants, animals, bacteria and fungi naturally associated with each other in their natural environment.

“The goal of this assessment was not to provide an exhaustive list of flora,” said Carson. “It was to document as much as possible by traversing as many habitats as possible and giving ourselves a look at a pass through the diversity of ecosystems that we could predict and find on site.”

The team started documenting in March 2022 and continued to do so through late fall and into early winter. Carson did not name or describe the location of any of the rare plants the team found to avoid destruction or poaching of those populations. The data will be shared with the town and the Pinnacle Park Foundation.

One of the more interesting results from the survey involved the discovery of how old water infrastructure has sheltered populations of Southern Appalachian brook charr, more often called the Southern Appalachian brook trout. While brook charr are native to Southern Appalachia, other predatory fish like rainbow and brown trout were introduced to the area from California and Europe, respectively. These species of trout tend to outcompete the native brook charr where the species coincide.

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The upper portions of the Dills and Fisher Creek tracts support populations of Southern Appalachian brook charr, also known as brook trout. Equinox Environmental photo

Both the Dills Creek and Fisher Creek tracts contain infrastructure from the historic watershed when Sylva used to draw its water directly from these creeks. The structures have prevented rainbow and brown trout from swimming further upstream to spawn. This barrier to trout, combined with the presence of healthy populations of benthic macroinvertebrates — informally called aquatic bugs —  allows the upper portions of the Dills and Fisher Creek tracts to support brook charr populations.

“Normally we look at barriers in streams and we try to get rid of them. There’s a lot of momentum on removing barriers to movement of aquatic organisms. But some of those barriers are actually preserving the genetics of the brook charr up in those watersheds,” said Carson. “It’s really important and significant that this diverse array of bugs is occurring in these headwater streams, because these bugs are feeding the charr. If anything were to happen to those bugs, you could put pressure on, and negatively affect the charr population.”

The survey found that Pinnacle Park is highly connected to important landscapes, has high-quality biodiversity and wildlife habitat and is strongly resilient against climate change. It is rife with unique topographical features including extensive cliffs, boulder fields, rocky outcrops and summits, the most popular of which is likely the pinnacle for which the park is named.

Equinox consolidated some of its findings from the botanical survey into recommendations for the Pinnacle Park Foundation. These include protection of sensitive elements, poaching prevention, restoration of degraded roads and trails and control of nonnative invasive species.

The degradation of roads on the property, especially those on the Blackrock Tract originally cut for housing developments, are particularly troubling. These roads contain huge ruts and are causing sedimentation that is impairing water quality in Blackrock and Soco Creeks.

“I understand the cost of repairing a road like that is astronomical now, but certainly restoration of these degraded roads, especially on the Blackrock side, is one of our strongest recommendations as you move into the master planning effort,” said Carson. “To have some really serious conversations about the integrity of that road, what it’s doing to the ecosystem, what it’s doing to Soco Creek, which might I remind you is one of the veins of the Long Man  running into Qualla.”

Long Man (Ga-nv-hi-dv A-s-ga-ya) is the Cherokee conception of river systems whose head is in the mountains and feet lie in the sea, providing water to drink, clean, grow food and perform numerous cultural rituals.

“If we have the opportunity to make a positive change for the water source of the Cherokee, I think that could be a really important benefit,” said Carson.

The botanical survey ranks invasive species according to their risk level and recommends taking immediate action on populations that pose a high risk to the area. For example, invasive kudzu,  which is present on the lower end of the Pinnacle Park side and on the upper reaches of the Blackrock side of the park, is known to grow over native plants, pull down trees and it does not hold soil back. The recommendation is to eradicate invasive species from the property.

“An overarching nonnative invasive plant management plan would be a good idea,” said Carson.

One of the botanical survey’s most valuable pieces of information for the construction of a master plan is identifying the location of ecologically sensitive areas. Knowledge of these places will help inform future trail development and maintenance of existing trails.

What’s next

Now, the Pinnacle Park Foundation can start creating a master plan to protect the plant species and communities identified in the botanical survey.

“We want to take these survey results and do a recreational survey of citizens that use this park and determine the best path forward and best future for this park and how to preserve it and how to balance preservation of the park with recreational opportunities for people,” said Mayor David Nestler. “It will help us identify what we need to fix in the park and get funding sources for that as well.”

This master plan is distinct from a separate master planning process  to sketch out trails and amenities for the Blackrock Tract. In 2021, the town voted to partner with the EBCI on that planning process. Both governments appropriated $20,000 for the effort, but no contract has yet been awarded.

Pinnacle Park Foundation has already received and ranked proposals for the botanical master plan. Equinox received the highest ranking with the cost estimated at $150,000. So far, the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority has donated $50,000 towards the master plan.

At its April 13 meeting, the town board voted to appropriate $50,000 towards the master plan; the money will come from Fisher Creek water quality funds. The remaining $50,000 is expected to come from Jackson County.

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