by Jess Riddle : Forest Ecologist
High on Whiteside Mountain near Highlands, North Carolina, the Chattooga River bubbles out of a ridge. One of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southeast, the Chattooga now flows to the Atlantic Ocean, but once flowed to the Gulf of Mexico. In the foothills of the Appalachians, the Savannah River lay lower than the Chattahoochee River. By relentlessly eroding farther inland over the eons, the headwaters of the Savannah eventually intersected and intercepted the headwaters of the Chattahoochee. In a dramatic example of “stream capture” or “stream piracy”, the waters of the Chattooga began flowing into the Savannah rather than the Chattahoochee.
Not merely an anecdote of geomorphology, this event shaped the infrastructure and economy of the area, and may be a key to biodiversity conservation. With increased erosive power, the Chattooga and its tributaries began down-cutting. Gorges formed. Streams now enter the gorges via waterfalls and cascades, and fill them with the roar of rapids. Those rapids make the Chattooga one of the premier whitewater rafting destinations in the Southeast. Rafting combined with fishing and other outdoor recreation makes the river a major driver of the local economy.
The roar of motors, however, is absent from most of the river. Steep slopes keep roads away from the streams, unlike most of north Georgia. The lack of flat land has also limited farming and other development far down the river, resulting in far more public land along the Chattooga than along other rivers in Georgia’s mountains. Much of the Chattooga River watershed is part of Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina; the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia; and Sumter National Forest in South Carolina.
Today, a chain of Georgia’s Mountain Treasures runs up and down the Chattooga. As roadless areas, some are a bit ragged, but others are solid blocks of unfragmented land. All have a core of nearly pristine land around the river and reach out along tributary streams. Together, they represent one of the two best opportunities in north Georgia to maintain a connected corridor of natural habitats (the other being the Appalachian Trail ridge).
Such corridors are important to plant and animal populations and are becoming more so. If a storm or wildfire wipes out a population in one area, connection to adjacent areas helps other populations recolonize, which protects against extirpation across the broader area. Connections between areas also protect genetic health and prevent inbreeding by allowing gene flow among populations. As climate change pushes species out of their current habitat, they will have to migrate to new areas with suitable conditions. For many species, this will be a long and continuous process.
The Chattooga River corridor allows for migration not only from south to north, but also from low to high. At just under 900 feet elevation, the secluded shores of Tugaloo Lake are among the lowest areas on the national forest. Chattooga Mountain Treasures extend all the way to the top of Rabun Bald, Georgia’s second highest peak at 4,692 feet, and the watershed reaches its apex on Whiteside Mountain at 4,930 feet.
Much of that elevation change occurs over just a few miles. Consequently, the Chattooga watershed and adjacent sections of the Blue Ridge Escarpment act as a wall to moist air masses coming up from the Atlantic and are some of the wettest areas in eastern North America. Shade and humidity in the gorges allow a number of rare and delicate ferns, mosses, and liverworts to avoid drying out and to thrive in this environment. Filmy ferns, perhaps the most striking inhabitant, have leaves only a single cell thick.
Flanking the streams, yellow-rumped warblers sing from high in white pines that rise above the surrounding canopy of hardwoods (and formerly hemlocks). Forests in the area have an unusual abundance of heaths, like rhododendron and bearberry, huckleberry, and pines. The pines grow to exceptional proportions, including the tallest known trees in Georgia, white pines over 180 feet tall.
The greatest rarities occur where the forests give way to rock. The Highlands Plateau with its iconic granitic domes supports a number of endemic species, those that occur nowhere else in the world. Cliffside goldenrod and Blue Ridge golden ragwort grow in this alternately drenched and sun-baked habitat. Most of the Highlands Plateau is in North Carolina, but it spills into Georgia in the upper Chattooga watershed. More Georgia rarities, however, are northern species that find refuge on Rabun Bald’s high elevations.
For protection, all of these rare species, and common species that may become rare with climate change, rely on two congressionally-designated areas and temporary national forest management designations. The Ellicott Rock Wilderness sets aside 8,296 acres, split among Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The Wild and Scenic River corridor protects a narrow ribbon along the Chattooga and the West Fork. To protect a wider variety of habitats, connect them along the river, and link low- and high-elevation areas, the Chattooga Georgia’s Mountain Treasures areas will need advocates during the next Forest Plan revision.