Today started early, as I dropped hubby off at the Asheville airport at 6:00 am and then continued north on I 26 to begin my North American adventure. I drove north through Tennessee and the western tip of Virginia, entering Kentucky at its southeastern boundary. My intention was to first visit the Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve, in order to get a glimpse of the area’s natural landscape, before heading off to see decapitated mountains. Unfortunately, the topless mountains are visible as soon as you enter the state of Kentucky from the southeast.
I pass a number of now defunct coal mines, the machinery rusting in the elements, and I pass a few operational strip mines. The coined term to describe this, “mountain top removal,” is not apt, for it doesn’t seem to be just the tops that are being removed, at least at the mines I observe. Instead, the whole mountain is being excavated, not from the top down, but from the sides inward, in terraced strips. All vegetation is removed, and then large areas of the mountainsides are strategically blown up. As I drive past, I am warned by signs to turn off my cell phone. Are the gasses being released by the explosions that volatile?
The blown up mountains are an eyesore and a localized ecological catastrophe, but the effect of strip mining operations on adjacent rivers is even worse. Pathetic attempts to control runoff of sediments into the waterways are made with flimsy (and failing) erosion control devices. The river water is opaque, and in some places, pea soup green with eutrophication. Given the state of human populations in this state, all this devastation would appear to have been of little benefit to most of the people who must now deal with the consequences.
In spite of localized devastation, one is struck by the far greater areas where the landscape is uninterrupted and intact. The forests of Kentucky and all of Southern Appalachia are known as a biodiversity hotspot, meaning that they are key areas of biodiversity, in addition to being at risk. In particular, Southern Appalachia is home to an extraordinary variety of small mammals and amphibians. All of which are threatened from a variety of causes, including, but not limited to, the introduction of alien invasive species and (of course) climate change.
The Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve is the largest “old growth” forest in the state of Kentucky, although its old growth portion measures only 2,350 acres. The forest type is known as “mixed mesophytic,” and the entire Southern Appalachian Mountains once boasted blankets of this forest type. During past couple of centuries, the old growth forests, dominated by towering specimens of American chestnut, were vigorously logged, leaving only a few fragments of old growth in hard to access areas. In addition to ecological impacts caused due to logging, the American chestnut trees that once served as keystone species in the forests, were wiped out by an invasive blight that was introduced inadvertently into the United States on Chinese chestnut trees. The logging, coupled with the blight, resulted in a significant ecological restructuring, and the animals that depended on the chestnuts for their survival, either adapted or perished. The black bear, changed its primary food source from chestnuts to acorns, but since acorns are not as abundant or nutritious as the chestnuts once were, black bear populations suffered significant declines. As the bear is also a keystone species, numerous other tropic cascades also likely transpired as a result of its decline. The end result is a forest today that probably bears little resemblance to the ancient forests of Southern Appalachia, regardless of its “old growth.”
Nevertheless the forest is still an enchanting place. Towering Eastern Hemlock and beech trees dominate, underfoot is a spongy thicket of centuries of decayed biomass. Wild ginger, ladies’ slipper and sarsaparilla form tangled masses of shiny green on the forest floor. A variety of warblers serenade each other in the treetops.