Box Creek Wilderness © Lloyd Raleigh

Diverse team of ecologists help save the Box Creek Wilderness: a Southern Appalachian biological hotspot

Featured image: Box Creek Wild © Lloyd Raleigh

By Christopher R. Wilson

Beginning around 2010, a private land conservationist named Tim Sweeney began purchasing and protecting important properties across North Carolina. By 2017, he’d acquired over 10,000 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains, 20,000 acres in the South Mountains, and another 10,000 acres in the Piedmont. Many of these lands are now actively managed for biodiversity and have been placed under the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program’s Registered Heritage Areas program, a voluntary agreement to protect outstanding examples of natural diversity in the state. Many have been transferred to public or private conservation organizations for permanent protection and management, including the largest easement donation in the state’s history. This high profile conservation work has been widely celebrated among conservationists and, indeed, much has been written about Tim’s remarkable land protection efforts. But a lesser known story is his support for one of the most intensive biological inventories of a natural area in the state’s history, and certainly in my career.

When done in support of a land protection project, biological inventories tell you what plants, animals, and habitats are on the property and what types of protection and management are needed to preserve these features in the long-term. But more importantly, the work reveals what makes the property a special place for biodiversity and why we should care, which generates the vision, enthusiasm, and support needed to make a meaningful conservation project happen. Some species are elusive and require lots of survey effort to find, many are only detectable in certain seasons, and others require highly specialized experts to find them. When done right, a biological inventory engages teams of professional zoologists, botanists, natural community ecologists, and taxonomic specialists to survey the property on multiple occasions over different seasons using a variety of techniques. Unfortunately, in the real world, this level of effort is seen as too expensive and perhaps unnecessary, so it rarely happens, particularly on voluntary private land protection projects. But Tim Sweeney saw things differently.

Tim Sweeney is Founder and CEO of Epic Games, creators of the smash hit video game Fortnite, among others. Fascinated with biodiversity, Tim hired a team of field naturalists to systematically inventory the natural features of all his conservation properties over a 5-year period. Conducting surveys year-round, these “boots-on-the-ground” biologists were able to document hundreds of locations of rare species tracked by the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program (NCNHP), which maintains a database of the state’s rarest species and their locations. These biologists also classified and mapped fine-scale natural communities, vegetation types, and habitats across tens of thousands of acres. But it all started and reached its highest intensity on a property known as the Box Creek Wilderness located in the South Mountains of McDowell and Rutherford counties, about 30 miles east of Asheville.

Appalachian Golden-banner © Lloyd Raleigh

Appalachian Golden-banner © Lloyd Raleigh

Incited by a proposed 100-ft wide powerline condemnation through the heart of the property and the ensuing legal fight to stop it, Tim wanted to document every possible species that was under threat. A local consulting ecologist and conservation advocate named Kevin Caldwell of Mountains-to-Sea Ecological was hired to begin the work. Kevin quickly assembled a team of biologists to scour the property for rare natural features and included regional taxonomic experts, volunteer BioBlitz members, and another local consulting botanist named Lloyd Raleigh of Helia Environmental. In the race up to a potential legal showdown, managing the inventory project became daunting, and soon Kevin convinced me to join the Box Creek effort. I had worked for wildlands philanthropists and land conservancies around the country for years yet had almost never heard of a private individual protecting this much land this fast and insisting on biological inventories, restoration, and management. So, in the spring of 2013 I took a position with Unique Places (a firm administering Tim’s land management at the time) as Director of Conservation Science to lead the ecological inventories on Tim’s lands. Together, Kevin, Lloyd, and I would form the core biological team for Box Creek and the rest of Tim Sweeney’s lands across the state.

Four toed salamander © Christopher Wilson

Four toed salamander © Christopher Wilson

The Box Creek Wilderness is a 7,000-acre property located within a large continuous matrix of private and public conservation lands that make up roughly 53,000 acres and include the South Mountain State Park and Gamelands. It provides part of a linkage between the South Mountains to the east and the larger Blue Ridge Mountain province to the west. NC Natural Heritage Program biologists first visited Box Creek back in the mid-2000’s and these brief surveys documented around 10 natural communities and 25 rare species. By 2015, after our intensive surveys, the documented natural communities on Box Creek expanded to 34 (included 23 global and state imperiled communities), and the rare species count ballooned to nearly 130. State threatened & endangered species included Dwarf Chinquapin Oak, Rough Blazing Star, Divided Leaf Ragwort, Virginia Spiderwort, and Allegheny Plum. In all, about 1,100 plant and animal species were documented on the property. Kevin remarked, “Before our first survey season had really begun, we were joking that whoever didn’t find rare species that day was a loser.” But the real excitement came from new discoveries for science.

During the natural community mapping work, Caldwell and Raleigh noticed that several communities on Box Creek didn’t match the classifications available in the latest NCNHP Guide to the Natural Communities of North Carolina. So, they consulted the author Michael Schafale, who visited the property and suggested these could be new and undescribed communities; a Dry Basic subtype of Montane Oak-Hickory Forest, a Low Elevation Basic Glade, and a Headwater Stream Forest. All certainly rare and likely state- and globally imperiled. Caldwell and Raleigh also documented four natural communities common elsewhere but never before found in the South Mountains, as well as hundreds of acres of unlogged old growth. But the new discoveries didn’t stop there.

Dwayne Estes, Associate Professor of Biology at Austin Peay State University, conducted botanical surveys in the glades at Box Creek. He was instantly struck by a few species that “didn’t look right”. After closer inspection and consultation with other regional experts, he realized he had discovered what appear to be two plant species new to science – a new spiderwort (Tradescantia) species and a new fameflower (Phemeranthus) species. Upon returning down the mountain from the glades, Dwayne remarked “I felt like I was Asa Gray up there!” Just prior to our surveys, a biologist named David Campbell discovered the state’s first and only known records of Allegheny Plum on the property.

Bo Sullivan, a Research Associate of the Smithsonian Institution, recorded 373 moth species on the Box Creek land, including 3 new-to-science or undescribed species, 2 species never before recorded in the state, and 10 rare species tracked by the NCNHP. One of the new state records was previously unknown east of Arkansas. One moth was not just a new species to science, but an entirely new genus. It was formally described by Bo and his colleague as the “Hillcane Borer” moth (Cherokeea attakullakulla) [Quinter, E. L. and J. B. Sullivan 2014. A new apameine genus and species from the southern Appalachian Mountains, USA (Lepidoptera, Noctuidae, Noctuinae). ZooKeys 421: 181–191]. Bo commented “These results reflect the rich woodlands at Box Creek. Had the study occurred for the full season, the number of species would probably have exceeded 650, making Box Creek one of the more diverse sites in the state.”

Diana fritillary © Christopher Wilson

Diana fritillary © Christopher Wilson

The Southern Appalachian Mountains are well known for being a hotspot for salamander diversity, and Box Creek did not disappoint. The South Mountain Gray Cheek Salamander, a globally imperiled local endemic known mostly from the South Mountains State Park to the east, was found on the property further west and at lower elevations than previous records. Within small floodplain pools on the property, I found the first county record of the Mole Salamander and, in nearby mossy seepage areas, the first county record for the Four-toed Salamander– both state rare species.

Mole Salamander © Christopher Wilson

Mole Salamander © Christopher Wilson

Interesting wildlife findings didn’t stop there. One day a neighbor walked-up to a group of the biologists with a plastic bucket containing an interesting turtle he had found. It turned out to be the first county record of a Gulf Coast Spiny Softshell turtle, another state rare species. On a property immediately adjacent to Box Creek, also owned by Sweeney, my camera traps captured photos of the Eastern Spotted Skunk, a declining and understudied rare species with few recent observations in the state at that time. Two biologists from the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, Steve Fraley and T.R. Russ, conducted stream surveys on the property and found the Fantail Darter, Broad River Crayfish, and Carolina Foothills Crayfish – all state rare species. My acoustic surveys for bats, using an arsenal of automated ultrasonic recorders placed throughout the property, as well as mist-netting and acoustic surveys by consultant Gary Libby, detected or captured a number bat species including the state rare Little Brown Myotis, Tricolored Bat, and Northern Myotis (Northern Long-eared bat). The Northern Myotis was recently listed as Threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act and the Tricolored Bat was recently petitioned for listing under the ESA.

Tricolor Bat © Garry Libby

Tricolor Bat © Garry Libby

Kevin and I did extensive bird surveys throughout Box Creek and found abundant populations of many species considered high conservation priorities by the Appalachian Mountain Migratory Bird Joint Venture Program, Partners in Flight, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, NCNHP, and others. These species included Acadian Flycatcher, Louisiana Waterthrush, Swainson’s Warbler, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Worm-eating Warbler, and Woodthrush. Based on these results, and additional data sources, Audubon North Carolina is considering expanding the current South Mountains Important Bird Area to include the Box Creek property.

At the completion of our surveys, an astounding 386 point occurrences of rare species were documented on Box Creek. Based on these findings the NCNHP designated the Box Creek Wilderness as a state recognized Natural Area (a site of special biodiversity significance) and gave it the highest possible significance rating, placing it in the top one percent of nearly 2,500 Natural Areas in the state. In the end, our biological survey findings and NCNHP’s recognition of the property’s significance helped convince the US Fish and Wildlife Service to accept a donation of a conservation easement on the property (the largest easement donation by a private landowner in the state’s history) which permanently protected Box Creek and put an immediate stop to the proposed powerline condemnation.

Summed up well by Misty Franklin, Director of the NC Natural Heritage Program, “The Box Creek Wilderness project is a perfect example of how public-private partnerships can achieve the best conservation outcomes. After the area was originally highlighted in the Natural Heritage Inventory of Rutherford County, Tim’s team of biologists logged hundreds of hours gathering additional information about the species and natural communities there. They shared this information freely with the Natural Heritage Program and collaborated with taxonomic experts to identify new species and natural communities and document the incredible richness of the site. Thanks to their hard work and expertise, this site was recognized as one of the most important sites for conserving North Carolina’s natural heritage, and, most importantly, the Box Creek Wilderness is being protected through a variety of voluntary conservation agreements.”

Eastern Spotted Skunk © Christopher Wilson

Eastern Spotted Skunk © Christopher Wilson

But rather than just put our report on a shelf and call it good, Tim chose to use the biological findings to guide management and restoration. Our biological team worked with his forestry staff to prioritize locations for prescribed burns on Box Creek and other properties, and we returned the following growing seasons to monitor the results. In some community types, we saw dramatic increases in the cover of rare herbs after the burns. In other stands, we saw dramatic increases in invasive species. So, we adjusted the burns accordingly the next time around. Other restoration activities included treating hemlocks for wooly adelgid infestations, doing crop tree release for Butternut trees and Allegany Plum, and working with the American Chestnut Foundation to plant stands of blight resistant American Chestnuts.

As a conservation scientist, the Box Creek project is everything I like to see. It’s full of rare and endemic species, it’s big and wild, and it’s connected to a large surrounding landscape of protected lands. The experience shows how turning loose a diverse team of passionate field biologists can lead to incredible discoveries on a property whose true significance for biodiversity would otherwise have been overlooked. It shows how biological surveys can generate enthusiasm, support, and collaboration for a land protection project, which can lead to opportunities in the deal-making process that might not have been available before. It also shows how biological inventory data can lead to a more informed and meaningful outcome for biodiversity conservation. One might think “but of course, this was a well-funded project.” But in my experience, these lessons are not limited to projects like Box Creek. I have seen time and time again where even brief surveys by knowledgeable biologists can make all the difference to good conservation. Simply put, biodiversity conservation needs more boots-on-the-ground field biologists: people who live and breathe this stuff and have the experience to know when “something doesn’t look right”. I thank Tim Sweeney for having the vision to see that and supporting the work, and for all he has done for biodiversity in NC.

Acknowledgements- In no particular order, the following biologists, not already mentioned above, contributed to the surveys on Box Creek: James Padgett, Shawn Oakley (NC Natural Heritage Program); Lori Williams, Alan Cameron, Gabriel Greater (NC Wildlife Resources Commission); Sue Cameron (US Fish and Wildlife Service); BioBlitz volunteers from NC Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation coordinated by Jeff Hall and Ed Corey; Dave Beamer and his students (Nash Community College); volunteers from the Carolina Vegetation Survey; Bill Moye, botanist; Lee Echols and Peter Smith (North American Land Trust); Karin Heiman, consulting botanist; Josh Kelly and Bob Gale (MountainTrue); Becky Hardman, herpetologist, and Merrill Lynch, lepidopterist. The biological work was a massive collaboration and included many volunteers not individually mentioned here. Please know your work is appreciated.

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