Archived Outdoors

National forest balds in jeopardy due to funding cuts

out frBy Danny Bernstein • Contributor           

Many hikers are amazed by the balds that dot the Southern Appalachian landscape along the Appalachian Trail. Walking out of a tunnel of rhododendrons onto an open meadow where the views go on forever can be an exhilarating experience.

But what if Big Bald was no longer bald and the beloved Max Patch became a maze of bushes, brambles, and vines?

This year, the $35,000 to manage the balds in North Carolina and Tennessee national forests was eliminated from the National Park Service budget. But that’ s not the end of the story.

The funding for the bald maintenance is part of a complicated financial arrangement. The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, a National Park Service unit that is under the Department of the Interior, provides the money to keep the balds clear. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a non-profit that manages and supports the trail, prioritizes which balds need the most work each year.

The money to do the mowing and maintenance is transferred from the Park Service to the U.S. Forest Service, which is part of the Department of Agriculture. The Forest Service does the actual work of keeping the balds clear. This system is used for Roan Highlands, Max Patch, Big Bald, and Beauty Spot, which are located in Pisgah and Cherokee national forests.

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Stevin Westcott with the Forest Service thinks that some maintenance will still be done on the balds despite the funding cut.

“We’ll be able to mow some of these areas even if we don’t have funding from the Park Service. We may not mow quite as much, but the visual appeal is not going to be affected. Maybe the grass will be a little taller, but people won’t see dramatic changes in the vegetation. We’ll mow this August, but we still have to work out which sites will be worked on,” said Westcott.

Julie Judkins with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is worried, though, because managing the balds requires a variety of techniques.

“It’s not just a matter of mowing,” said Judkins. “Every area has a different management plan. Max Patch is managed for its scenic beauty and ideally would be mowed every year. Big Bald, located above Wolf Laurel Resort, has a community of sensitive plants and is mowed every two to three years.”

The Roan Mountains are famous for their flaming azaleas and rhododendrons that ignite into brilliant color in June. Gray’s lilies may be globally rare, but at the right time these flowers can be seen easily and attract photographers and flower lovers from several states away.

“At Roan Mountain, we need to keep back blackberries or they get out of control,” Judkins says. “Volunteers weed eat and prune brushes. But the Forest Service uses a track mower for Roan and Max Patch. This machinery is expensive and a lot of volunteers with push mowers wouldn’t work.”

Roan Mountain has an innovative program where goats help keep down the vegetation.

So why not goats everyplace? It may sound good, but it’s much more expensive than mowing. Someone has to manage the goats. They need a water source, fencing, guard dogs, and frequent rotation, but it is the most natural way for balds to be managed.

Wayah Bald in Nantahala National Forest is managed by the Forest Service directly, so it’s not likely to be affected by the funding cut.

Gail Lehman, a Nantahala Hiking Club board member from Franklin, started going to Wayah Bald when she was 10 years old and visiting Franklin in the summer.

“The tower on Wayah has been refurbished,” says Lehman. “It has information plaques showing the names of mountains in all directions of the 360-degree panorama. You can get there by car and then a short walk to the tower.”

In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Backcountry Management Specialist Melissa Coburn assures visitors that Gregory and Andrews balds will continue to be maintained. “We try to maximize our work with the funding we have,” she said.

Regular hikers worry that the new scenario could negatively affect the Forest Service balds.

Marcia Bromberg, president of Carolina Mountain Club from West Asheville, remembers that she visited Max Patch in the 1990s when it was not mowed.

“It was totally overgrown with blackberries. When I moved here, I was so pleased to see that it was mowed and easy to walk through. It would be a shame to see the blackberries take over again,” said Bromberg.

Another hiker cherishes the experience of going to the top of Max Patch.

“We love to take visitors to Max Patch. The views are amazing,” says Maggie Bowles from Sylva. “You feel like you are on top of the world. Max Patch offers a 360-degree view encompassing the Smokies and the Blue Ridge. Because the A.T. passes right through the center of the bald, you often meet thru or section hikers who pause to rest and take in the scenery.”


What is Max Patch?

Max Patch, at 4,600 feet, is an open, grassy summit with glorious views located in the Harmon Den area of the Pisgah National Forest. Because you only have to walk a quarter mile to reach its summit, it’s a popular destination for visitors. They come to admire the 360-degree view, exercise their dogs, fly kites, picnic, and just hang out. The Appalachian Trail goes over Max Patch.


Why are balds bald?

There may be more theories of how the balds came to be than there are balds. A Cherokee legend tells of a monster bird that swooped down and snatched children. The people appealed to the Great Spirit who sent down lightning against the monster. The Great Spirit decreed that certain high mountain tops would stay bald so that the people could see danger approaching.

A more recent explanations state that Native Americans burned the area to encourage young plants to grow. They then hunted deer and other animals that were attracted by the new shoots. Early settlers took their cattle up to high grounds to let them graze in the summer and keep down the vegetation. Balds could be explained by the tundra that covered the high elevations of the Blue Ridge Mountains during glacial periods. Another theory points to lightning strikes.

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