Discovering the Southern Appalachian Grassy Balds
Grassy balds are unique Appalachian wonders, open meadows in the mountains where, ecologically, there should be trees. It has been hypothesized that some of the balds originated more than ten thousand years ago and were kept open by the grazing of large herbivores such as the mastodon and the wooly mammoth. Over the course of earth’s history, environmental and anthropogenic factors have shaped, modified and maintained the balds. Up to one hundred grassy balds were once recognized to exist in the southern Appalachians, but fewer exist today due to forest succession (Gersmehl, 1970). Collectively, the grassy balds share a common ecological identity, but individually, each bald portrays its own personality, forged by a unique history of interplay between nature, grazers and humans. Indeed, the grassy balds have commanded human attention for centuries. Their presence in primary literature and lore originates with Native American folklore and extends all the way to the present day management plans set by policymakers. The starting point for this sense of timeless human interest is the profound, breathtaking beauty of the grassy balds.
The balds’ natural beauty, along with their ecological value and captivating histories, inspired the idea to create an informative hiking guide for a selection of twenty-five southern Appalachian grassy balds. The first part of the project consisted of a literature review; sources were evaluated for information pertaining to flora and fauna, explanations of origin, history of anthropogenic influence and history of management policies. For each of the grassy balds selected to be featured, a hike was completed, and both a detailed trail description and a concise historical summary were written. GPS tracks were taken, waypoints were identified and photos were documented. Ultimately, the trail descriptions, summaries, maps, pictures and significant literary information were synthesized into an informative hiking guide to be published by University of South Carolina Press.
The information presented in this article is meant to provide a scholarly account of the grassy balds beginning with their histories of origin, tracking the impact they received from the European settlers and including their present day outlook for conservation. It is a work based on published literature about the grassy balds as well as my personal experiences gained during the course of the project. As a work published in Caravel Undergraduate Research Journal, this article is available to the public and represents a unique academic endeavor that I had as an undergraduate at the University of South Carolina. This article may also be disseminated through other publishing outlets as a resource for education and awareness about the grassy balds.
Southern Appalachian grassy balds can be found in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia. They are normally situated at elevations above 4000 feet and are nestled near the summits and ridges of mountains (Brooks, 1965). They are open, treeless and grassy. These characteristics, coupled with high altitude, give rise to spectacular views that are hard to find anywhere else in the southeast. Grassy balds are home to unique plant and animal communities, including several rare, relict and disjunct species (Weigl and Knowles, 2013). Mountain oat grass, bluegrass and timothy form a soft blanket over the soil. Colorful wildflowers and ripe berry bushes speckle the surface. Birds, foxes, mice, snakes, deer and bears come for food and habitat (Houk, 1993).Hardwood and spruce-fir forests surround each grassy bald, giving rise to distinctive pockets of grass within the vast, forest-covered mountains. All of the Appalachian balds are located below the climatic treeline, so why are they not covered with trees like every other part of the mountain? Where did they come from? These questions knock on the door of a fascinating history where human curiosity converges with nature.
For over a century, researchers have been developing models about how the southern Appalachian balds originated. Are they natural or are they artifacts that were cleared by humans? The answer to this question carries significance because it has the power to sway policy and management decisions for the balds. Despite the grassy balds’ underlying beauty, policymakers would be more likely to protect and maintain the grassy balds if they were accepted as natural ecosystems rather than products of mankind. A simple answer to the question regarding origin, however, has eluded academia for a long time. Scientists have offered opposing hypotheses and different balds have generated contradicting evidence. No single explanation by itself has been satisfactory.Discovering the Southern Appalachian Grassy Balds After many years of differing hypotheses, an important principle emerged: each grassy bald may have its own history of origin and modification, its own unique story. While one explanation may work for some balds, another explanation may be needed for others.
The earliest recovered writings about the southern Appalachian balds date back to the seventeenth century. There are writings by a man named John Lederer who reported open grassy areas at high mountain elevations in Virginia in 1669 (Weigl and Knowles, 1999). In 1799, border surveyor John Strother wrote in his diary, “There is no shrubbage grows on the tops of this mountain for several miles, say five […] The prospects from the Roan mountain is more conspicuous than any other part of the Appalachian Mns” (Wilson, 1991). It is unlikely that these sources are referring to areas cleared by European settlers because the Cherokee tribes held a dominant presence in the higher elevations of the Appalachian mountains until the early nineteenth century (Cappon, 1976).
Cherokee folklore includes several references to open grassy areas at high mountain elevations, suggesting that the grassy balds may have predated humans. The famous legend of Ulagu tells of a giant flying creature that would swoop down and snatch up children in its claws, and then, “vanish so swiftly that pursuit was impossible” (Fink, 1931). Eventually, sentinels were placed on the mountaintops to guard against Ulagu. The sentinels failed to capture it, but they did manage to find its lair high up on a sheer mountainside. The sentinels were unable to reach Ulagu’s lair, so they asked for help from the Great Spirit. The Great Spirit brought lightning down upon Ulagu’s home, splitting off the entire mountainside and temporarily stunning Ulagu so that the sentinels could pounce upon it with their spears. That very same day, the Great Spirit cleared the tops of all the highest mountains so that the sentinels would have better lookout stations in the instance of another malicious attack (Mooney, 1898; Fink, 1931).
Clues that the grassy balds originated by natural means came not only from spoken tale, but also from several empirical studies. One such study done on Gregory bald by Cain (1931) found that “soil profiles show from a few inches to a foot or more of homogenous black soil of grassland type, which is too deep and mature to have developed since the advent of the white man […]” As evidence such as this kept accumulating, it was very reasonable to believe that some of the grassy balds were of natural origin, but the question still remained: how did these wonderful communities arise from nature?
Several researchers have attempted to explain the origins of the southern Appalachian balds in terms of natural occurrences. Gates (1941) proposed that oak gall wasps were responsible for the grassy clearings; this hypothesis fails, however, to explain the occurrence of grassy balds that never existed near oak forests. A few researchers postulated that harsh weather conditions such as fires, frost, devastating winds and climatic change created and maintained the grassy balds (Billings and Mark, 1957; Edson, 1984; Clements, 1936). According to Weigl and Knowles (1999), these studies accurately documented the severe conditions present in the high Appalachians that may have affected the bald ecosystem, but “no one theory has been adequate to explain these [bald] communities.” The scientific community was ardently searching for answers; some of the puzzle pieces were there, some were missing and few had been put together quite yet.
Weigl and Knowles (1999) formulated a comprehensive hypothesis that put together some of the earlier puzzle pieces and included some new insights to explain the natural occurrence of grassy balds. They proposed that during the late Pleistocene era, glacial advances caused severe climatic conditions that repeatedly formed semi-tundra and open grassland in the high peaks of the southern mountains. Furthermore, “some of these ridge systems or peaks became the permanent habitat or summer feeding grounds of an array of large grazers and browsers capable of maintaining open grasslands […]” These large grazers included the mastodon and mammoth. Then, “at the time of the great megafaunal extinction 10-11,000 years ago, bison, elk and deer may have replaced some of the earlier herbivores […]”. They served to keep the balds open via grazing habits until the arrival of the European settlers. Central to this hypothesis was the concept that grazing prevents forest succession and maintains open grasslands.
Impact of European Settlers
Weigl and Knowles (1999) provided a rational explanation for the natural occurrence of grassy balds that, if fully accredited by policymakers, would place immense value on these ancient ecosystems. Not all grassy balds share the same story, however. While some balds may have originated via methods described in the climate-herbivore hypothesis, others may have arisen as a result of human interference. Regardless of how each bald originated, it is beyond doubt that most of the grassy balds were subject to the influence of European settlers.
European settlers began forming colonies along the Atlantic coast in the early seventeenth century. Settlement in the mountains, however, took much longer. Native Americans had occupied the area for generations, and they provided an obstacle for European expansion to the higher Appalachian elevations. It was not until the forced relocation of the southeastern Native American tribes during the Trail of Tears in 1838 that Europeans began to significantly populate the higher elevation Appalachians.
By the mid-nineteenth century, conflicts with the Native Americans in the Appalachians had greatly diminished. Farmers began to plant their crops in the coves and valleys below the mountains, for the soil was fertile and yielded abundant harvest. Soon, the land became so valuable for agriculture that farmers began to look elsewhere to graze their cattle. The answer: grassy balds. Grassy balds at high elevations in the southern Appalachians offered several advantages for herders. The air was cooler, there were fewer insects, there was no need to fence the cattle from the crops and there was a lower prevalence of milk sickness. The major disadvantage, of course, was trekking hundreds of livestock 4000 feet up and down the mountain each year. Livestock owners would pay herders to care for their animals over the summer. Each herder would take up to five-hundred cattle, a few hundred sheep, and a few horses, goats and mules to the top of a grassy bald before the first day of May each year. Then, in mid-September, the herders would lead the livestock back down the mountain for the owners to take to the markets (National Park Service, 2008).
With an understanding of this herding practice and a collection of supporting evidence, Gersmehl (1970) hypothesized that the settlers themselves actually cleared the trees on the mountaintops to form the balds. Other researchers have elaborated on this stance, and understandably so. There is evidence that some of the grassy balds were indeed originally cleared by settlers. For example, John Oliver, a settler in the Cades Cove area claimed that a man named James Spence burned trees and cleared an area for grazing in the 1830’s, an area which came to be known as Spence Field and is referred to as a grassy bald today (Durwood, 1988).
While it is rationed that some of the balds are of human origin, it is agreed upon that most, if not all of the balds, have been at least modified by the settlers regardless of their origin. Grassy balds that were already present upon the arrival of the settlers were probably expanded by cutting, burning and grazing. One of the biggest challenges for historians, and possibly a source of controversy, has been making the distinction between instances of human modification to natural balds and human creation of the new balds. Perhaps one bald predated the arrival of European settlers, but was discovered by herders and expanded for the grazing of livestock. Simultaneously, a herder on a neighboring mountain may have begun clearing a new bald from scratch so that he too may share in the advantages of herding on a grassy bald. Each grassy bald has a unique and interesting history that must be examined very thoroughly.
The grassy balds are beautiful wonders of nature, and plausibly, their history of human fascination does not end with the first European settlers. Intertwined in the balds’ rich histories are vibrant tales of family betrayals, Civil War battles, romantic marriages, ritzy hunting preserves and tragic deaths. One of the greatest thrills of hiking to the grassy balds was experiencing each hike for its own worth and absorbing the deep history that exuded from the earth below.
End of Grazing and Modern Implications
“When an opening is made in the high elevation hardwood or spruce-fir forest, it is usually filled in with fire cherry (Prunus pensylvanica), briars (Rubus sp.), and coarse weeds. These successional species would eventually give way to a mature forest “(Ramseur, 1960). Forest succession was an ecological reality; without some method of grazing, mowing, cutting or burning to keep the grassy balds open, they would be subsumed by the forest. Grazing was the very force that was keeping the grassy balds alive, and according to the climate-herbivore hypothesis, had been doing so for thousands of years. Unfortunately for the grassy balds, “by the 1940’s and 1950’s mountain farming went into a decline and lands were purchased by parks, national forests and recreation.” The final verdict: “without their herbivores the balds started to disappear” (Weigl and Knowles, 1999).
Today, over sixty years after the decline of mountain grazing, the grassy balds have taken divergent directions. Grassy balds that have not been maintained by grazing, cutting or mowing have been substantially reduced by forest succession. Several of the balds, however, are currently being actively maintained and kept open. National parks, wildlife conservancies and private entities are recognizing some of the balds as products of nature and habitats of many rare plant and animal species. As time takes its course, it is likely that some of the grassy balds will be completely consumed by the forest, but it is hoped that a special collection of balds will continue to be maintained, valued and protected. They are truly some of the most intriguing natural wonders in the United States.
Hiking to the Grassy Balds
The overall goal of this research project was to create an informative hiking guide for a collection of Southern Appalachian grassy balds. The best way to experience the grassy balds is undoubtedly to visit them in person. The hiking experiences are deeply personal; they must be done, rather than just read about. As part of the project, I kept a personal blog about my own hiking experiences (nicholaslenzeappbalds.blogspot.com). These were some of the richest experiences of my life. I know few sensations that compare to the rush of exhilaration and pure appreciation that pulsated through my body each time I summited a grassy bald. For most of the hikes, there was a lack of words to describe these incredible feelings.
The grassy balds’ histories are fascinating, their origins are captivating, their plant and animal communities are among the most unique in the world and their surrounding views are spectacular. An informative hiking guide will ideally provide the historical and ecological context necessary for an understanding of the grassy balds, along with hiking descriptions that facilitate visiting them in person. Below is a brief sample of grassy balds that will be included in the hiking guide. I encourage you to hike one of the trails, create your own story and fall in love with the grassy balds for all that they are worth.
Name: Andrew’s Bald
Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Elevation: 5,920 feet
Round-trip Distance: 3.6 miles
Interesting Fact: The hike to the bald undergoes a net loss in elevation; all of the elevation gain is incurred on the trip back. (Photo by Nicholas Lenze)
Name: Max Patch
Location: Pisgah National Forest
Elevation: 4,629 feet
Round-trip Distance: 1.4 miles
Interesting Fact: The bald area may have once been used as an airstrip for private tours and is known as an exceptional spot for stargazing on clear nights. (Photo by Nicholas Lenze)
Name: Gregory Bald
Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Elevation: 4,949 feet
Round-trip Distance: 5.5 miles
Interesting Fact: In mid-to-late June, there is a world-famous display of hybrid flame azaleas that sparkle atop of the bald. (Photo by Nicholas Lenze)
Name: Spence Field
Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Elevation: 4,961 feet
Round-trip Distance: 10.6 miles
Interesting Fact: The hike can be done on horseback, and it is not uncommon to bump into a couple of these travelers along the way. (Photo by Nicholas Lenze)
Name: Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Ridge Bald
Location: Roan Mountain
Elevation: 6,200 feet
Round-trip Distance: 4.9 miles
Interesting Fact: These three balds can all be experienced in a single hike that traverses a section of the Appalachian Trail known to have one of the highest concentrations of rare plant species along the entire trail. (Photo by Nicholas Lenze)
Name: Huckleberry Knob
Location: Nantahala National Forest
Elevation: 5,560 feet
Round-trip Distance: 1.9 miles
Interesting Fact: Two loggers, Andy Sherman and Paul O’Neil, died here in the December of 1899 after they had left from Tellico Creek logging camp in effort to reach Robbinsville by Christmas. Andy Sherman’s grave can be found on the bald. (Photo by Nicholas Lenze)
Name: Hooper Bald
Location: Nantahala National Forest
Elevation: 5,433 feet
Round-trip Distance: 1.0 miles
Interesting Fact: In the early 1900’s, a hunting preserve was built on the bald for wealthy clients to hunt wild boars, buffalo, elk, mule deer, black bear, and Russian brown bear. (Photo by Nicholas Lenze)
Name: Stratton Bald
Location: Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness
Elevation: 5,341 feet
Round-trip Distance: 6.4 miles
Interesting Fact: The bald was named after a farmer, Robert Stratton, who lived off the land until 1864, when he was ambushed and killed by a group known as the Kirkland Bushwhackers. (Photo by Nicholas Lenze)
Name: Whigg Meadow
Location: Cherokee National Forest
Elevation: 4,958 feet
Round-trip Distance: 3.0 miles
Interesting Fact: The bald was cleared in the 1920’s by Babcock Lumber Company. It was then was purchased by the Cherokee National Forest and used as a grazing ground for sheep and cattle up until the 1970’s. (Photo by Nicholas Lenze)
Name: Mount Rogers
Location: Grayson Highlands State Park
Elevation: 5,729 feet
Round-trip Distance: 8.8 miles
Interesting Fact: The bald is home to wild feral ponies, which were introduced to the park in 1975 in effort to keep the bald area open via grazing and are now managed by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association. (Photo by Nicholas Lenze)
Name: Little Hump and Big Hump
Location: Yellow Gap, Appalachian Trail
Elevation: 5,582 feet
Round-trip Distance: 8.9 miles
Interesting Fact: Part of this hike utilizes the Overmountain Victory Trail, which was traversed in 1780 by 1000 American militiamen before they defeated the British in a bloody battle that became a turning point of the Revolutionary War. (Photo by Nicholas Lenze)
Name: Hemphill Bald
Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Elevation: 5,550 feet
Round-trip Distance: 8.2 miles
Interesting Fact: The hike includes the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center, which was a public gift included in a 535-acre donation to the Great Smoky Mountains Park by Kathryn McNeil and Voit Gilmore in 2000. (Photo by Nicholas Lenze)
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