$25 Will Save a Rhododendron
Reprinted with permission from AUDUBON
The magazine of the National Audubon Society, Copyright (c) 1976.
What makes a mountain unique? Why, of all the ancient hills that roll south from New England - the Berkshires, Catskills, Blue Ridge, and Great Smoky Mountains - does this particular mountain have such special meaning?
The Cherokee Indians had one answer: Long before the white man called this part of his domain ''Carolina," the redmen of Pisgah met an invading force of Catawba from the lowlands on the mountain's grassy summit in a day-long battle that forever, so legend says, stained the rhododendron red.
Andre Michaux, the eighteenth-century French botanist, had still another explanation: Climbing to the summit through mist and knee-deep mountain oat grass (Danthonia compressa), this world wanderer, who had spent four years exploring the Tigris and Euphrates valleys and a decade more surveying the flora of North America, was suddenly struck with homesickness. Beyond the bald outcroppings of cranberry granite, a vista of hills piled one behind another like green waves upon the sea reminded the Frenchman of the green hills of the Rhone Valley. He called the mountain "Rhone," but the Scot-Irish immigrants who followed him anglicized the spelling to "Roan."
In the 1870s, still other men had a different vision of the mountain: L. B. Searle completed an enormous summer resort which was destroyed by fire and rebuilt by J. T. Wilder. With three stories and 260 rooms, the Searle-Wilder enterprise was billed as the grandest "hay fever resort" in the world. It probably was. But it failed in 1919, and its lumber went into the homes and churches of mountain people throughout the area. Today there are as many ways to describe the uniqueness of this mountain as there are categories of science and recreation. Hikers call Roan one of the most splendid sections of the entire Appalachian Trail. Geologists marvel at its age - its history of faulting, folding, over thrusting, sedimentation, and erosion. Meteorologists note the weather around its 6,285-foot peak is cooler, wetter, and windier than anywhere in the surrounding region. Mammalogists say the mountain is unusual as a southern home for the northern flying squirrel. Birders observe that Roan represents a southern limit for the snow bunting and is a good place to watch for raptors during migration.
However, botanists claim highest laurels for the unique flora of Roan Mountain, and, indeed, all naturalists stand awestruck before one of the greatest natural gardens of North America.
The mountain is lush with wild geraniums, chickweed, forget-me-nots, and purple fringed orchids. The graceful Gray's lily is found in few other places on Earth. In some areas, blue, white, and yellow violets are so common you can't avoid crushing them underfoot as you wander admiring other wildflowers: red and white trillium, bluets, spring-beauties, squirrel-corn, asters, and Dutchman's breeches.
Among the larger plants, rhododendron reign supreme. There are three species: Carolina, great, and the bloodstained Catawba. Few pure and natural stands of rhododendron remain anywhere in North America, but Roan Mountain has the largest: some 600 acres of contiguous spring color. No wonder the delicate beauty of pink-, flame-, and orange-blossomed wild azaleas is sometimes overlooked by visitors awed by the aggressive displays of rhododendron.
The dominance of one plant species over others creates "balds'' and "slicks". Instead of being covered by spruce and fir trees, as are most of the surrounding mountains, the summit of Roan is unusual in being a mixture of gneiss and granite outcroppings interspersed by balds of mountain oat grass. In 1941 botanist D. M. Brown speculated that the mountain (along with the region) was undergoing a climate change that may in time see rhododendron slicks replace the grass balds, and a spruce-fir climax, in turn, replace the rhododendron.
If nature is undergoing such constant change, ask enterprising lowlanders, what is the harm in developing Roan Mountain as a vacation or retirement center?
Such a question wants no answer - only the right to change what is. Yet nature's themes are continuity as well as change, and it is the apparent permanence or continuity of the mountain's beauty that draws people in the first place. Still, developers are less interested in comprehending the themes of nature than in exploiting other people's needs of outdoor recreation. Thus, as Roan Mountain has been challenged in times past by tribes pushing up from the plains and valleys, so today its principal threat is from lowlanders with dollars in their pockets and a dream. Most are well meaning people who do not see the harm in one vacation home. However, their enthusiasm for the beauty of the region is contagious, and soon there are others who, likewise, see no adverse impacts in one more retirement house.
But at what point does a mountain lose its beauty, its special place, among a range of mountains? Standing at your picture window, admiring the view, is a selfish act if it means others cannot see the mountain because of you.
Responding to this threat, the Appalachian Trail Conference formed the Roan Mountain Preservation Committee in 1967. As the mountain area is entirely within the authorized purchase boundaries of the Pisgah and Cherokee national forests straddling the North Carolina-Tennessee border, the preservation committee sought the assistance of the U.S. Forest Service, which proceeded to purchase a number of key tracts. However, as late as 1974 some 12,000 acres of critical valleys and ridges still lay outside national forest boundaries.
That year the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy was incorporated to do privately what public efforts apparently could no longer accomplish. The local group has since acted in a manner analogous to a ""project committee" of the Nature Conservancy; it raises money which the Nature Conservancy uses to buy critical parcels, and in turn assumes responsibility for managing these privately purchased lands as part of its goal to create and preserve a 12,000-acre natural area on and surrounding Roan Mountain. On April 30th last year, the Nature Conservancy announced purchase of, or option on, more than one-sixth of the essential 12,000 acres. This included purchase of an 870-acre tract originally slated for development.
However, a rule of thumb of land acquisition is that the more land preserved in a given area, the higher becomes the purchase price of remaining land. Furthermore, while many of the in-holders on Roan Mountain insist they are delighted with the work of the Conservancy and have no development plans of their own, they are understandably reluctant to part with their own land. If conservation easements can be created and made binding to protect Roan Mountain, this might be enough. However, since the strength of such easements is still largely an unknown quantity in many state and federal courts, the Conservancy continues to stress the need for cash (more than $1,750,000) to finish the job.
Stanley A. Murray, president of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, points out that $500 will save an acre; $25, a rhododendron. "Because of Roan Mountain's massive floral displays," he adds, "a memorial donation is equivalent to a gift of flowers in perpetuity."
Gifts, great and small, trickle into the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy office in Kingsport, Tennessee, as well as the Nature Conservancy's headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. The amounts vary, but the inspiration is the same: love of a mountain symbolic of the entire eastern chain, yet like no other mountain on Earth.
Why must we set aside so much land when it is a single flower or flying squirrel that captivates the imagination? The answer lies in the awkward truth that there is no such thing as independence in nature; the individual counts for very little. Land preservation is necessarily a more meaningful gesture than breeding endangered species in an arboretum or zoo. For by preserving a system of relationships, we stand a fair chance of preserving life itself.