Jocassee's Gems

Tucked away in Appalachia lies a treasure of biodiversity that scientists are only beginning to uncover

  • T. Edward Nickens
  • Aug 01, 2003

WINDY FALLS of the Horsepasture River is a chaos of tumbling water--not a single waterfall but a thundering free fall of countless cascades, mossy slides and curtains of foam. Here, in the remote Jocassee Gorges along the mountainous North Carolina-South Carolina state line, the Horsepasture falls 720 feet in three-quarters of a mile. I've climbed most of that in two hours of rock-hopping, belly-crawling and frantic swims across frigid pools, but still the top of Windy Falls eludes me.

Now I've nearly climbed as far as I dare in the fading light. To catch one more view before turning back, I scale a massive jumble of lichen-flecked boulders and creep to the edge. Overhead the Horsepasture pours through twin clefts of rock with a roar that suffocates all other sounds. To my left and right drape 30-foot veils of white water. Far below my feet the river stairsteps between house-sized boulders then disappears as the bottom falls out of the mountains. Completely surrounded by falling water, I drink in the sight and then tighten my bootlaces. Climbing up Windy Falls was no cakewalk. Clambering down will be even more difficult. But if getting a close look at the Jocassee Gorges isn't easy, now there is good reason to try even harder.

UNCERTAIN FUTURE: In 1999, North and South Carolina obtained 43,500 remote mountain acres around fjordlike Lake Jocassee (left), which lies astride the Carolinas' state line, from Duke Power Company. Considered one of greatest public lands acquisitions in the Southeast since the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, its future is hotly debated.


In 1999, North and South Carolina obtained 43,500 remote mountain acres around fjordlike Lake Jocassee, which lies astride the Carolinas' state line, from Duke Power Company. (See "Gaining the Gorges" sidebar below.) Because the Jocassee Gorges tract had long served as a critical wildlife corridor--tying together three national forests and a half-dozen South Carolina state parks--conservationists quickly lauded the deal as the most significant public lands acquisition in the Southeast highlands since the 1934 establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Few, however, could have imagined the complex trove of biodiversity hidden in its rugged terrain.

"We are still in the age of discovery here," says Drew Lanham, a Clemson University biologist studying Jocassee's bird communities. "Every time you turn around you discover something new." That means scientists have a rare opportunity to help conservationists figure out just what exists in this remote region of steep, wet valleys--and help shape its future.

What scientists already know is that Jocassee, which is the Cherokee word for "place of the lost one," is unlike anything else the Southeast has to offer. In the span of just a few miles the ancient Appalachian Mountains descend 2,000 feet in breathtaking palisades of granite cliffs, talus slopes and forested coves filled with rare ferns, wildflowers and mosses. Home to white-tailed deer, tree-dwelling bats and rare fish such as turquoise darters, Jocassee is a landscape of superlatives. South Carolina's largest population of black bear stalks the woods, while North Carolina's healthiest population of endangered green salamanders lurks in its wet rock crevices. The region drinks in nearly 80 inches of rain a year, making it one of the wettest places in America. Five major rivers and streams--two of them on the list of National Wild and Scenic Rivers--plunge over bulwarks the Cherokee dubbed "the blue wall." All told Jocassee boasts more than 30 waterfalls, including the 411-foot-tall Whitewater Falls, perhaps the most photographed in the Southeast, and Rainbow Falls, which tumbles from a cliff face higher than Niagara.

These are only Jocassee's most obvious charms. Others require lung-bursting, off-trail climbs and long hikes into tucked-away mountain coves, or, at the very least, stepping away from your car. "The first time I set foot on this property I took four steps away from the car and boom! There it was," says Patrick McMillan, curator of Clemson University's herbarium, while pushing aside a tangle of shrubs along an old logging road near the base of Wadakoe Mountain. The goateed botanist steps back to reveal a six-foot-tall plant with softball-sized leaves and large yellow flowers--a species of goldenrod unknown to science until McMillan discovered it not 10 feet from his car.

Since that autumn day in 2001 Wadakoe's unusual magnesium-rich soils have served up a smorgasbord of rare plants and plant communities. At least eleven species have been found that are not known to exist anywhere else in South Carolina, including Ozark bunchflower, autumn goldenrod and bent wakerobin--one of six trilliums on the mountain. Botanists combing Wadakoe have tallied more than 500 populations of 82 plant species considered rare in South Carolina, and in a single 20-meter by 50-meter plot, McMillan counted 135 species of plants, a number "nearly unheard of in a forested environment," he says.

From the base of the mountain in the Eastatoee Valley, McMillan and I climb through soaring tulip poplars, yellowwood and butternut trees to a ridgeline studded with 250-year-old white oaks. In a three-acre treeless glade he points out big bluestem, one of the predominant grasses of the tallgrass prairie, and other midwestern staples: slender wild rye, Indian grass and tall dropseed. Beside my boot is a dark green clump of woolly lip fern, a species of tough fern that clings to rocky outcrops. A few inches away sprouts river oat, typically a streamside plant, and a sturdy grass called Chapman's redtop. "That's a coastal plain species found in longleaf pine savannahs--and then on Wadakoe Mountain," McMillan chuckles. "I don't know where else you can go to see all of this in one place."

Elsewhere in Jocassee, endangered Oconee bells grow more densely than anywhere else in the world. Numbering in the millions, the showy white wildflowers were discovered in the Jocassee area in 1787, displayed in Paris, then lost to science for half a century. Rediscovered in 1877 by a 17-year-old boy near Marion, North Carolina, the quest for the flowers had been called the "Holy Grail of 19th century botany." The near-constant misting from the region's famous waterfalls creates a microhabitat of "spray cliffs" cloaked with unusual ferns, liverworts and mosses--a number of them disjunct species separated from their primary range by as many as thousands of miles. Tunbridge filmy fern, for example, is found in Central and South America, Europe and Asia, but the Jocassee claims its only population in the United States. "Up here even the poison ivy is weird," grins McMillan. "We have the only population of midwestern poison ivy in the Carolinas, and it's the most southeasterly location of the species known."

Such natural diversity is matched by the range of opinions on how to manage Jocassee now that it's part of the public trust. North Carolina has parceled its portion into the 7,100-acre Gorges State Park--a move that prompted angry protest from local hunters--and 2,900 acres of wildlife management lands where hunting is allowed. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is still considering how to manage its 33,000 acres. South Carolina "is committed to maintaining the natural character of the region," says Sam Stokes, DNR wildlife biologist in charge of the region. But issues of timber harvest, prescribed burns and the allocation of part of the land to the state's Heritage Trust program, which protects the state's threatened natural features, are still under discussion. "To its credit," says Lanham, "South Carolina remains in listening mode."

Lanham, too, has spent a good deal of time listening. He, his graduate students and Stanlee Miller, curator of the university's vertebrate collections, have plumbed some of the most difficult Jocassee Gorges terrain during the last four years to study the region's songbirds, particularly the Swainson's warbler, a secretive animal many ornithologists worry is in decline. Using a mounted male warbler and recorded songs of the six-inch brown birds, the researchers net male Swainson's warblers and mark them with colored leg bands. Then the fun begins. To analyze the birds' breeding territories, the researchers trail the birds by foot across creeks, up and down rocky ravines and through tangled groves of rhododendrons that locals call "hells."

One rainy morning, Lanham and graduate student Julia Camp lead me deep into one of their study areas, a doghobble- and fern-choked cove near South Carolina's Side-of-Mountain Creek. "Like Jocassee," Lanham grimaces as he crawls on his hands and knees under a mossy fallen tulip poplar, "the Swainson's warbler is proving a mystery." Known to come from two very different habitat types in the Southeast--canebrakes in the coastal plain and tangled streamsides in deep Appalachian forests--the birds were widely reckoned to nest deep in thickets of rhododendron. "But 97 percent of our nests were found in young hemlock trees growing near streams," he says. Not only did that open up new questions about the habitat preferences of the warblers, but it raised more concerns about the species' future. Hemlocks are imperiled by an exotic insect called the wooly hemlock adelgid, and some scientists predict their complete disappearance in the southern Appalachians. "With Swainson's warblers we've begun to separate myth from reality, and there are management implications to what we've learned," Lanham explains. "That's similar to the challenges facing the Jocassee Gorges."

LAND OF BOUNTY: Finding refuge within the gorge is South Carolina's largest population of black bears. Also at home here are white-tailed deer, such as this one crossing Lake Jocassee (above), and dainty, rare wildflowers that include endangered Oconee bells, lost to science for a half-century.



Many people consider Jocassee Gorges an untouched wilderness, even though most of the land was timbered by the middle decades of the 20th century. Others figure these mountains for a rare chunk of semi-wild country where logging roads and few regulations engendered a deep culture of traditional uses; the region's bear hunters, trout fishermen, backpackers and all-terrain-vehicle enthusiasts all have strong opinions as to how Jocassee should be managed. The good news is that so many people care. At the very first public hearing held after South Carolina bought the land, 800 people crowded into a Pickens County high school auditorium. "To have this much land and this many people thinking about conservation on a landscape scale is very exciting," Lanham says. "If we work together carefully, Jocassee Gorges will emerge as a masterpiece of both ecology and science-based management. Otherwise, we'll parcel Jocassee up so that it doesn't mean much as a whole."

After all, say scientists, saving the land was only the first step toward preserving Jocassee. The challenge now is to ensure that the mountains' astonishing variety--from Windy Falls' wild cascades to Wadakoe's trillium-blanketed slopes and beyond--doesn't divide its fans, but unites them.

A regular contributor to National Wildlife, T. Edward Nickens last wrote about his love affair with salamanders in the April/May issue.

Joint Effort
Gaining the Gorges

Forty years ago, Duke Power Company purchased a swath of mountain land around the Horsepasture and Toxaway rivers, which flow from North Carolina into South Carolina's most rugged highlands. The company eventually cobbled together more than 83,000 acres and built two lakes--Jocassee and Keowee--for power production. When Duke announced in 1996 that it would divest a large portion of its land around Lake Jocassee, conservation groups, state agencies and the U.S. Forest Service worked together to help save the rare mosaic known as Jocassee Gorges.

"It's a unique story of land donations and acquisitions because it involved so many partners," says Angela Viney, executive director of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation, an NWF affiliate, which lobbied hard for the deal. And it came at a critical time, as much of the surrounding mountains have been carved into second-home and retirement communities.

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