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National wildlife refuge a sanctuary for mountain bogs

As bogs disappear, the plants and creatures unique to them also slip away. The federal government lists 13 species found on candidate sites for the new refuge as threatened or endangered. The four-inch bog turtle is North America’s tiniest.
As bogs disappear, the plants and creatures unique to them also slip away. The federal government lists 13 species found on candidate sites for the new refuge as threatened or endangered. The four-inch bog turtle is North America’s tiniest. Staff Photographer

North Carolina’s newest national wildlife refuge, and the state’s first west of Charlotte, will be built around places best visited with rubber boots.

Mountain Bogs National Wildlife Refuge will get its first acreage this Earth Day. The Nature Conservancy will formally donate an easement Wednesday to 39-acre Ida’s Bog in Ashe County.

Bogs are small, shallow wetlands fed by groundwater. So many once riddled the Southern Appalachians that they thwarted both travelers and farmers.

After centuries of draining and filling, experts estimate that 5 to 10 percent of the bogs survive. They are some of the nation’s rarest and most imperiled places.

“All we have left of these are little postage stamps,” said Adam Warwick, the Nature Conservancy’s stewardship manager for the southern Blue Ridge.

The refuge plan is to acquire many postage stamps over decades. Unlike the 10 refuges that sprawl across thousands of acres in Eastern North Carolina, Mountain Bogs will be an archipelago of many separate tracts.

As bogs disappear, the plants and creatures unique to them also slip away. The federal government lists 13 species found in candidate sites for the new refuge as threatened or endangered.

Among them are oddities such as pitcher plants, which compensate for growing in poor ground by eating insects. The bunched arrowhead, another plant, is found only in Henderson and Greenville, S.C., counties. The 4-inch bog turtle is North America’s tiniest.

Migrating birds feed and nest among bogs, and salamanders breed in them. Bogs soak up floodwaters and slowly release them.

Some North Carolina bogs are at least 14,000 years old, said biologist Edward Schwartzman of the state Natural Heritage Program.

“A lot of the plant communities in bogs have been around for a very long time,” he said. “To preserve them is to preserve biological history.”

While federal laws protect bogs, it’s no guarantee they will survive. Altering the drainage on neighboring property can doom a little wetland.

Local land trusts across North Carolina’s mountains have struggled for decades to protect bogs.

“I feel like it’s almost a death of 1,000 cuts situation where if there’s not proactive efforts to preserve them, over time they will continue to see little impacts that are negative,” said Kieran Roe, executive director of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy in Hendersonville.

Ida’s Bog

Ida’s Bog in mid-April is just awakening from winter. It feels like a wet sponge underfoot.

Bluets’ tiny violet flowers lean toward the weak sunlight. Sedges and rushes have begun to sprout under the waist-high stalks of last year’s growth. Grassy, foot-wide rivulets braid the bog.

The bog is known for its dozens of bog turtles, but none have emerged from the muck.

The greenest of the new growth belongs to multiflora rose, a fast-growing invasive plant from Asia. “They’re always on the verge of leaping out and taking over something,” Warwick said.

The conservancy uses goats and some herbicides to keep non-native plants, trees and willow shrubs from overtaking the bog and eventually drying it up.

“You’re kind of playing God a little bit,” Warwick said, “but that’s the hand we’re dealt if we want to keep species like the mountain sweet pitcher plant alive for future generations.”

Decades-long plan

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided last year, after years of study, to create the bog refuge.

The agency has identified 30 potential sites, covering 42,250 acres in 11 counties in Western North Carolina and two in Eastern Tennessee. It’s expected to take decades, if ever, for the refuge to reach its authorized 23,478 total acres.

The service will compete for grants from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which gets revenue from offshore drilling royalties and is due to expire this year unless Congress renews it. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, has been an outspoken advocate of the fund.

It’s not clear how open the refuge will be to the public. The service said it will initially close tracts to protect their fragile species until it assesses how and where to allow public access.

Fish and Wildlife says it will acquire land only from willing sellers.

A public comment period in 2013 found some unease at the prospect of adding to federal lands, which can’t be taxed by counties. Federal forests already cover more than 1 million acres of North Carolina’s mountains.

Half of Transylvania County, south of Asheville, is held by state and national forests, parks or land trusts. Transylvania is also bog-rich. Fish and Wildlife says more than 12,000 acres, more than any other county, could become part of the new refuge.

“We value the forestry system because it brings tourists into our county, but at the same time it does provide issues with providing services to the remaining portion of the county,” said County Manager Jaime Laughter. “For us, it’s a balancing act.”

Fish and Wildlife makes payments to refuge host counties that are based on factors such as a percentage of the land’s market value. In the unlikely case all the Transylvania sites join the refuge, it says, those payments would be nearly twice as much as tax revenue.

But word of the refuge produced far more willing sellers than expected, the agency says.

“For the most part, if they have something as valuable as a mountain bog, people really do want to see it’s protected,” said Walter Clark, executive director of Boone-based Blue Ridge Conservancy, which protected bogs in its seven-county territory. “I think perceptions are evolving.”

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Twitter: @bhender

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