Last Saturday, Professor of Biology Jim Yoder’s Conservation Biology class took a trip to Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia. The attending students were Environmental Sustainability majors and minors. The class has been studying the various types of ecosystems, issues of biodiversity and species, and government environmental policies and organizations. At Dolly Sods they looked to explore these issues and the question of what role humans have in this special area.
Dolly Sods is a unique wilderness. It is the highest plateau east of the Mississippi with altitudes ranging from 2,644 feet to 4,123 feet The high altitude and winds has created a system of flora and fauna not found anywhere else south of Canada. Dolly Sods is known for its open expanses of sphagnum bog, heath shrubs, and returning red spruce. One feels as though they are in Canadian wilderness; one would expect to see moose and elk roaming the meadows. The deep green spruces and spectrum of warm colors in the plants provides unbelievable views.
It is a novel ecosystem, meaning that the processes and features are relatively new due to human impacts in the area. Before logging, Dolly Sods boasted ancient and massive red spruce and eastern hemlock trees. The logging era demolished the large native trees. Repeated fires caused by flammable industrial waste reduced the area to a high altitude desert. Modest efforts were made from 1905 until the 1930s to remediate the forests. Neglect and misuse continued into the 1940s, when the area was used as a practice artillery and mortar range by the U.S. Army to train troops being sent to Europe to fight in World War II. This of course devastated certain areas, and bombs are still being found. In the 1970’s, the Nature Conservancy played a major role in preserving the area from threats such as mining and vacation cabin development.
The students began the day at a bird banding station. The station was operated by skilled volunteers who stay busy repairing capture nets, banding birds, and recording and sharing data on populations and migrations. Handlers took great care to ensure safety of the birds. On one of the best days at the station, they banded a record of 950 birds. Senior Cerrie Mendoza commented on the importance of the research. “It’s important to track the migration of birds across the United States. It helps provide researchers, scientists, and the general public with migration patterns of all different species of birds.” Other animal species inhabit the region including hares, beavers, salamanders, turkey, grouse, deer, foxes, black bears, and bobcats. Elk, bison, and mountain lions called the region home before the logging era.
The group continued to explore around a beaver dam as well as hiking trails to observe and categorize the various plants. Yoder was a wealth of knowledge on the area. Senior Abe Hartzler enjoyed seeing Yoder teach in this way. “It’s really great seeing [Yoder] in his natural habitat. His excitement and passion is contagious to everyone around him.”
The group spent the latter half of the day hiking and in free exploration time. Yoder led a group off-trail through the forests and bogs. As they meandered through the wilderness, activities included eating wild berries, identifying plants, and occasionally tripping in sink holes. Senior Thane Hostetler said, “If one hasn’t already, I would definitely recommend taking a hike with Yoder sometime. He is very knowledgeable about the plants and animals in the area, and will point out all the interesting things around you. It makes hiking a far richer experience.”
The Dolly Sods adventure ended with some bouldering and rock climbing on Bear Rocks, offering some incredible views. Protecting this unique area is about more than human benefit. Its beauty and complexity generates intrinsic value that cannot be explained with statistics and numbers. Once one sees Dolly Sods, the way it breathes and whispers, there is no choice but to ensure its continued existence.