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Saturday, July 13, 2002 4:23AM EDT

 ECOLOGY:PLANT CENSUS

Leaves of knowledge
Years-long inventory details state's plants


Doug Rayner, right, a botany professor at Wofford College in South Carolina, and Mike Schafale of the state Natural Heritage Program take a closer look at some plant specimens collected this week.
Staff Photos By Chris Seward
PLANT STUDY

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By CATHERINE CLABBY, Staff Writer

DANBURY - In 90-degree heat, Mike Schafale pulled on a long-sleeved shirt to protect his arms, grabbed a wild rhododendron branch and pulled himself from a hiking trail into the thicket of Hanging Rock State Park.

Fifteen years into a quest to count every plant in every important wild place in North Carolina, the ecologist was not about to let green briar thorns slow him down.

"Is this the way to the bear oaks?" the state Natural Heritage Program scientist yelled to a park ranger on his crew before disappearing behind dense bush north of Winston-Salem.

Schafale and a devoted band of fellow researchers conduct meticulous plant counts every summer in North Carolina. Plot by plot, they are crafting a first-of-its-kind inventory of what thrives in the state's least disturbed lands.

The survey could be pivotal in regional ecology studies. Scientists will finally know which vegetation coexists naturally from the sandy Coastal Plain to the rocky Nantahala Mountains. Conservationists will get good statewide maps to viable habitats suitable for rare or endangered species.

But first the work must get done.

Schafale and a core group of scientists, mostly professors at the Triangle's two largest state universities, started the project in 1988 after deciding North Carolina had enough committed botanists and ecologists to tackle so huge a task.

"There was no single, consistent and quantitative database that covered the entire state," said Thomas Wentworth, an N.C. State University botanist and a survey director.

Taking a plant census, called a pulse, is painstaking business. In swamps, longleaf pine forests or Appalachian ridges, the pulse ritual is the same. Schafale, Wentworth and co-organizers, including Robert K. Peet and Alan S. Weakley of UNC-Chapel Hill, summon volunteers to vacation rentals, out-of-session summer camps or even vacant migrant worker quarters for spells lasting as long as eight days.

In last week's sweltering heat, they rented two cabins without air conditioning near Stone Mountain to explore high ground in the western Piedmont, including Hanging Rock. On Tuesday morning, nearly 20 volunteers were ready to go by 7:30 a.m. Schafale, Wentworth and Peet broke them into teams no smaller than three. Those most conversant in North Carolina's 4,100 types of grasses, vines, shrubs and trees were named leaders.

After an hourlong drive to the state park, leaders loaded backpacks and their arms with gear most hikers would never carry up steep terrain: heavy duty reels of measuring tapes, stainless steel soil augers to drill down to bedrock, hardcover plant guides the size of good dictionaries and bulky global positioning equipment to pinpoint the precise longitude and latitude of each count.

Schafale and his two volunteers, young women who work at the park, joined a mile-plus march up Moore's Wall Loop, Hanging Rock's most strenuous trail. The ecologist gave up on finding a suitable spot featuring bear oaks, an endangered tree, after another team landed a good one. Instead he chose a chestnut oak forest thriving in the shallow soil covering Hanging Rock's erosion-resistant, granite base.

Measuring his plot was no leisurely walk through the woods. While trying to pull a tape in a straight line for 50 meters through stands of Catawba rhododendron, mountain laurel, several species of pine, oaks, blueberry and thorny vines, Schafale dropped or climbed as much as 6 feet in just a few steps. At times he simply threw the tape over the dense bush and fought his way around to retrieve it and carry on.

"Boy, y'all have a lot of green briar here," Schafale said, struggling at one point to move at all.

But in about two hours, 10 equal-sized blocks of ground within a 10,000-square-meter area were marked with surveying pins and hot pink and day-glow orange tape. Tonya Nifong, a Hanging Rock ranger, pounded metal stakes in each corner so scientists could return to precisely the same parcel again years from now if they want to measure changes in vegetation.

Nifong and park co-worker Cindy Morefield picked up a Biltmore stick, a standard forestry measuring tool, and started recording the type and diameter of every stem or tree trunk, chest-high or taller, on specially designed forms. Schafale started eyeing every plant species rooted in the ground.

He scribbled several names a minute on his forms, using the Latin titles for chestnut seedlings, sassafras saplings, huckleberry bushes, witch grass, pitch pine, Virginia pine, table mountain pine. The women marked down the common names of scarlet oak, serviceberry, black gum, ash, one pine type after another. And on and on for hours.

The most active pulse organizers -- who these days describe themselves as the Gang of Only Four, or GOOF -- have landed some money from state and federal agencies over the years. But the money gets spent on the survey equipment, the lodging, having data from the field keyed into computers back home and analyzing soil samples dug from each surveyed tract.

So none of this would be possible without the volunteers, usually a mix of the professors' students, former students or conservation workers of one sort of another. For them, helping out is not merely charity work, said Barbara Hart, an ecological consultant based in Bryson City who slept on the floor in the women's cabin at Stone Mountain Monday night.

"You can learn more looking over these guys' shoulders than you can learn in a year looking at books," Hart said, explaining the value of working among the most accomplished ecologists in the state.

And people do make the most of it.

On the way up Moore's Wall Loop, volunteers peppered Schafale with questions. The Duke University-trained ecologist confirmed that a brownish bud low on the ground was alive, a parasite with no chlorophyll of its own that tapped into other plants' roots for food.

He identified a foamy white fluff on the underside of a Carolina hemlock as an adelgid, a tiny pest somehow imported here from Europe or Asia. Because local plants have no natural defenses against it, it's killing Carolina hemlocks and other evergreens.

When the two young women on his team asked whether a lemon yellow flower in bloom all over Hanging Rock was tickseed, Schafale said it was. Then he stooped down to show them how the plant -- Coreopsis lanceolata to him -- has clusters of two leaves that look like six because of the unusual way they fold together.

"I'll never forget that," Nifong said.

Each night after a day's count, teams carry plants they can't identify in the field back to base camp. The experts try to identify each stem, peering through magnifying glasses and studying copies of the Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas and the Flora of the Carolinas and Virginia.

Plants that can't be named, or even good specimens that get identified, are carefully pressed between layers of corrugated cardboard and feltlike blotter paper for the trip back to the Triangle. Wafer ash might rest atop a native onion. A wild aster might get stored under a puzzling sample of sedge.

Scientists and their volunteers have written new entries to North Carolina's roster of plant life on these outings. A few years back in the Uwharrie Mountains, they stumbled across a species of goldenrod not seen here for a century.

Unwittingly they sometimes document how quickly thriving patches of wilderness can disappear. In one of their first pulses, they visited vibrant marine forests on the Outer Banks. They estimate that half of what they surveyed has been destroyed to make room for the vacation homes now so populous up and down North Carolina's once-remote shores.

So far, pulse teams have counted about 3,000 plots covering more than 800 acres. Time after time, they stake plots about one-quarter the size of a football field.

The four primary organizers, now in their 40s and 50s, believe they have another five years of counting left to capture all significant clusters of wilderness. They intend to write a substantial book before they retire or get slowed down by illness or age.

So it's no wonder Schafale was in such a hurry at Hanging Rock. In the middle of July's pulse, which hit Stone Mountain, Pilot Mountain and state game land as well as the state park, the organizers knew how much remains to be done. There's more to count in the Coastal Plain, in the northeastern corner of the state, outside the Triangle cities, beyond Charlotte and elsewhere.

"This is our legacy for the future," said Wentworth, a driver in the caravan carting volunteers from base to the field last week. "We have to finish."

Staff writer Catherine Clabby can be reached at 956-2414 or cclabby@newsobserver.com.

Researcher Lucy Reid contributed to this report.

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