Friday, March 6, 2015

Decline of the Balds

The following is a guest blog by Cabins USA Gatlinburg:

"As it stands, the best pasturage is high up in the mountains, where there are "balds" covered with succulent wild grass."

In Our Southern Highlanders, Horace Kephart recalled the prominent grassy balds that were used by settlers in the Smoky Mountains as grazing pasture. Around the time Kephart was exploring the Smokies in the early 1900s, much of the Tennessee-North Carolina border was a large field straddling the high ridge.

This open field stretched for nearly 24 miles, from Silers Bald to Gregory Bald, in Kephart's day. Modern-day hikers can explore this area by hiking along the Appalachian Trail. This route traces the ridge that was once home to grazing pasture and spectacular views as far as the eye can see.

By visiting high elevation fields like Andrews Bald, Spence Field, and Gregory Bald, hikers can still glimpse some of the views that Kephart enjoyed over 100 years ago. However, much of the high ridge in the Smokies has begun to return to the forest with the absence of sheep and cattle.

But how did these balds form? Most of this massive field was the result of work from human hands who cut and burned forest for their livestock. But some balds have more mysterious origins. Theories on Appalachian bald formation range from glacial activity, to grazing by large prehistoric mammals, but no one can say for sure.

A somewhat controversial policy of the park service has been to let nature reclaim the "unnatural" balds that were manmade. Today, the once jaw-dropping views in places like Spence Field, Silers Bald, and Russell Field are steadily being swallowed by brush.

Fortunately, the park service continues to preserve the balds on peaks like Gregory Bald and Andrews Bald. Evidence suggests that these two fields are natural balds that existed before European settlement, so the national park has chosen to keep the forests at bay. Without cutting back the brush, these highland fields and their unique flora would disappear in a few decades.

While we may someday say goodbye to stunning views from Spence Field and Maddron Bald, that day thankfully hasn't come just yet. Until then, we can keep on hiking to these unique and incredible features in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


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