University of South Carolina

Discovering the Appalachian balds

By Megan Sexton, msexton@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-1421

Nicholas Lenze has loved the outdoors for as long as he can remember. He grew up with a forest and a lake in the backyard, and would spend hours exploring, fishing and kayaking. Family summer vacations were spent hiking in the mountains.

So it’s just natural for Lenze, a rising sophomore in the South Carolina Honors College, to spend this summer in the woods, discovering and researching the Appalachian balds for a hiking guide to be published by the USC Press.

Lenze is working with Amy Duernberger, the lead researcher for the project and the electronic resources management librarian at the South Carolina State Library. He learned about the project from an email looking for a student research assistant. It immediately caught his attention.

“The more (Duernberger) told me about the grassy balds, the more interested I became, and eventually it changed from being a possible summer occupation to an incredible opportunity that I would not trade for anything,” Lenze said.

The Appalachian grassy balds are open meadows on the summits of mountains where, by all rights, there should be trees, Duernberger said. They offer spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and their unique subalpine ecosystems host more than 30 endangered or threatened plant species.

Appalachian balds

“Their origins present a great mystery. Are they manmade, the result of climate change, or something else entirely? What is certain is that the balds are disappearing and, without conservation efforts, they might disappear entirely within a few decades,” Duernberger said. The balds are falling prey to forest succession, the natural replacement of plant species in an area over time.

The book will be the first book-length guide for learning about and exploring the balds of Southern Appalachia. She hopes it will motivate outdoor enthusiasts to hike the balds and find a new appreciation for conservation efforts aimed at these natural wonders.

For Lenze, the chance to work with Duernberger and hike the Appalachian balds has made for a great summer.

“We are both very passionate about the project, and for me, this passion has arisen from conversations with Amy, shared experiences hiking the balds with her, and the freedom that she has given me to work with her collaboratively to write descriptions, make maps and find information. (USC Press director) Jonathan Haupt agreed to be my official project mentor. He offers me support and encouragement, and he provides guidance for the part of the project that involves creating and publishing the book.”

Lenze also said the Honors College and the undergraduate research program played a significant role in his participation.

“Not only has the Honors College prepared me intellectually to seek meaningful projects such as this one, but it has offered its full-fledged support, on the both personal and the professional level. The honors undergraduate research program introduced me to the important steps of undergraduate research, helped me fine-tune my research grant proposal and offered me funding through the Exploration Scholars grant,” Lenze said. “The Honors College staff is the force behind everything; it is truly an amazing group of people who know what they’re doing and genuinely want students to learn.”

Duernberger said Lenze has worked collaboratively with her on the hikes selected for the book -- taking GPS coordinates, photos and notes, writing trail descriptions and creating maps. He also is documenting his work in a blog.

“His sense of joy and wonder about the balds is truly special,” she said. “I am very fortunate to have him working with me as a research assistant.”

Lenze, a biochemistry and molecular biology major from Greensboro, N.C., said he hopes to continue to pursue projects that interest him, such as the Appalachian balds guidebook.

“I plan to keep exploring different areas of study by taking interesting classes, reading books, volunteering and participating in endeavors such as this one,” he said. “I do not know one specific thing that I want to do for the rest of my life, but I have my eyes set on medical school because it encourages a flexible undergraduate experience, allows for a lifetime of learning, and has a certain excitement factor about it.”

About the Appalachian balds

  • Balds are grassy areas in the Appalachian mountains at elevations where there should normally be trees
  • They offer spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding mountains
  • The Appalachian balds’ subalpine ecosystems host more than 30 endangered or threatened plant species
  • The guidebook to be published by USC Press will include trail descriptions and maps for 20-25 hikes of the Appalachian balds along with sections about possible origins (theories and folklore), information about forest success and management options, and the flora and fauna unique to each bald
  • USC student Nicholas Lenze is blogging about his experiences hiking and researching the Appalachian balds

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Posted: 07/08/13 @ 9:00 AM | Updated: 07/08/13 @ 4:13 PM | Permalink