Partner Profile: Mapping Change - Monitoring Forest Dynamics

Marking a geographical point along the North Carolina/Tennessee boundary.

An NPS researcher marks a geographical point along the North Carolina/Tennessee boundary.

NPS photo.

It is a chilly morning. Bettina Uhlig, a researcher from Germany working for the National Park Service, pushes her way uphill through a tangle of trees, climbing on her hands and knees toward the blue sky glinting at the top of the ridge. When she arrives, she drops her bags, turns on her Geographical Positioning System (GPS), and breathes in the rich scent of forest growth and decay.

Why are we here? To answer, we need to go back 188 years. North Carolina became a state in 1789 and Tennessee in 1796, yet the boundary between the two was not decisively mapped until 1821, when William Davenport walked a line along the highest ridgetops in the Great Smoky Mountains. To mark his way, Davenport noted the species of “witness tree” at each milemarker and waypoint.

Topographical map showing Tennessee/North Carolina boundary.

Davenport marked the boundary between Tennessee and North Carolina, which the Appalachian Trail often follows through the National Park.

NPS map image.

Scientists conducting Inventory and Monitoring studies at the park knew that the written record of his route could lead to new research. They saw potential for a long-term monitoring study: Davenport had not only marked a state boundary, he had formed a 65-mile-long ecological transect (a line along which scientists take observations and samples) and documented the vegetation types existing in 1821 at regular intervals.

Bettina, who received her PhD in Geography comparing Chilean and Californian forests, came to the Great Smoky Mountains to work with scientists in the Inventory and Monitoring program. Before she left, she began a project to monitor the points along Davenport’s transect and compare the vegetation in 2008 to the vegetation in 1821. By doing so she hoped to record:

  • Species composition—which trees grow where, and with which other trees; are these the same communities Davenport noted? Bettina noted which species were dominant (existed in the highest numbers), co-dominant (shared habitat equally), occasional (perhaps not as well suited to the Appalachian ecosystem, but surviving), and rare (seldom found in the Appalachian mountains).
  • Forest health—does the forest consist of mature, healthy trees, or do only saplings remain? Davenport noted a large number of fir trees, which seemed to confirm past studies that indicated many, many more spruce-fir forests existed prior to European settlement. Many firs have fallen over the past decade due to Balsam Woolly Adelgid, a non-native insect from Europe, so Park biologists can use changes to monitor entire tree communities.
  • Shifts in ecological niches—have communities of birches, for example, moved to higher elevations over time? Do the beech gaps that Davenport recorded still exist amidst the spruce and fir?

Being able to compare—essentially to have a very long-term monitoring transect—is exciting because the park’s landscape has changed so much with logging and settlement, and will continue to change with climate shifts, air pollution, blights, and pests that have and are killing vast numbers of trees.

Go to page 2 - the research process.

Or, return to Dispatches from the Field: Issue 1 main page.

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