The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Élan Young

Smokies Synchronous Firefly Photinus carolinus 20200608 3311 composite credit Abbott Nature PhotographyA recent display of synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) in the Smokies.  Abbott Nature Photography

Thousands of visitors view annual firefly spectacles in Smokies area as natural light show dims elsewhere

ELKMONT — Anyone who has fallen in love knows reading a love poem is no substitute for direct experience. Similarly, no technology, no art form, nor any reportage can come close to the mesmerizing firsthand experience of witnessing hundreds of thousands of synchronous firefly beetles pulsing in the dark during the peak of their mating period in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Over the last 20 years, throngs of eager visitors have trekked by the thousands to catch this rare glimpse of collective insect behavior. The crowds posed problems: Since females and larvae of the species are on and under the ground, visitors can trample them if they stray off trail. Likewise, flashlights and other white lights, including from cell phone screens, can also disrupt courtship. 

The firefly phenomenon caught fire in 1991, when Lynn Faust read an article suggesting that no synchronous fireflies lived in the western hemisphere, yet she knew that’s what she witnessed in the 1960s at the historic Elkmont community when she vacationed there with her in-laws. After she brought Photinus carolinus to the attention of scientists, word spread and new firefly pilgrimages to Elkmont were born. 

peerys mill damPeery’s Mill Dam on the Little River is slated for removal by the Army Corps of Engineers for environmental and public safety reasons.  Elan Young/Hellbender Press

Army Corps still committed to Little River dam removal for ecological and safety reasons, but timeline uncertain 

TOWNSEND — The remainders of two low-head dams on the Little River in Blount County, Rockford Dam and Peery’s Mill Dam, are slated for removal by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) following the release in July 2023 of a Project Report and Environmental Assessment that investigated the lower 32 miles of the Little River.

The Corps confirmed this week that plans are moving ahead to remove the two dams. 

Peery’s Mill Dam was the site of 4 separate drownings in the last 15 years, giving it the notorious reputation as the deadliest dam in Tennessee in the past quarter century. Late last month, three women had to be rescued from the churning waters there, prompting questions from the community about the status of the Corps’ removal effort. 

Little River Watershed Association president Andrew Gunnoe says that watershed advocates are eager for the dam removal project to move forward because doing so would provide both ecological and community benefits. 

Justin Pearson addresses People’s Voice on TVA’s Energy PlanTennessee state Rep. Justin J. Pearson speaks to community members assembled for the evening discussion during the People’s Voice on TVA’s Energy Plan.  John Waterman/Appalachian Voices

A lack of public process brought together a coalition of environmental organizations 

NASHVILLE  In every state except Tennessee, for-profit utilities and their regulators are required to get public input about energy-resource planning.

These Integrated Resource Plans (IRPs) provide an opportunity for a utility to demonstrate that the ratepayer money the utility spends is on the best mix of energy investments that meet this objective. 

In Tennessee, however, TVA, which is the nation’s largest public power provider, has no process for engaging the public on its IRPs.

It is this lack of public process that brought a coalition of environmental organizations together to host a mock public hearing in a Nashville church last month presided by Ted Thomas, former chair of Georgia Center for Energy Solutions. Their goal was to call attention to the fact that TVA acts more like a corporation or a self-regulated monopoly than as a public utility. The groups say that lack of public involvement in the process harms Tennesseeans across the board. 

Seed_Swap.pngTennessee Local Food Summit participants were encouraged to bring their favorite heirloom seeds for a seed swap and social.  Courtesy Matt Matheson

Tennessee Local Food Summit is a hive for food justice in the Southeast

NASHVILLE — About 70 miles north of Nashville in the town of Red Boiling Springs in Macon County, farmer and educator Jeff Poppen, better known as the Barefoot Farmer, runs one of the oldest and largest organic farms in Tennessee. For nearly 40 years, he built rich soil for his bountiful farm before the second-largest meat producer in the world forced him to move from the 250 acres he’d been farming since 1974. 

When his neighboring property owner partnered with Cobb Vantress, a subsidiary of the multinational mega-giant Tyson Foods, to place a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) — aka a factory farm — 450 feet from his homestead and garden, Poppen’s first instinct was to organize. 

This self-described “dirty hippie” found unlikely allies in his neighbors — a Baptist preacher, a state trooper, a politician, and what he calls a “chemical farmer” — all opposed to an industrial chicken house moving in.

IMG 4916A group of farmers representing the Tennessee Chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition gathers on the steps of the Tennessee capitol before lobbying representatives during Ag Day on the Hill.  Élan Young/Hellbender Press

Got sprawl? It’s past time to help young farmers access land

I’m not a farmer, I’m a hiker. I live in a shady mountain gap and can’t grow a fully ripe tomato in the summer — not to mention that the half-acre parcel of land that I call home includes a significant portion of river bed. But as a 20-year resident of rural Blount County, a gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I’ve watched the steady disappearance of farms over time, and I have wondered what can be done. 

This is why I rose at 4 a.m. for a trip to Nashville, planning to arrive before my alarm would normally sound. It will be my first time lobbying the state legislature and my first time meeting in person with the organizers of the Southeast Tennessee chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition — known as “Young Farmers” — who I’ve been Zooming with for the better part of the year. We are all headed to Ag Day on the Hill to advocate for young and beginning farmers and the  preservation of farmland for future generations. 

IMG 7863With the help of GPS coordinates and survey flags, Jordan Stark is able to deploy and locate the exact off-trail placement of soil moisture sensors she placed in Great Smoky Mountains National Park as part of her graduate research at Syracuse University.  Elan Young/Hellbender Press

Foundational ecology moves from before times to nowadays in the Smokies

GATLINBURG — In the Middle Ages, salamanders were thought to come from fire. A log set on the hearth would send them scurrying out of the rotten wood, startling those who had gathered around for warmth. We now know that salamanders, of course, come from water — even the European fire salamander with its flame-like yellow markings.

Over the last 20 years of getting my boots soggy in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I know these creatures to thrive in the clean, shallow streams and trickles of this temperate rainforest, where annual precipitation is higher than anywhere in the U.S. save for the Pacific Northwest.

One way to become acquainted with the park is through the water that veins through the hills and is transmuted into vapor that floats on the air in misty silence. After a rain, you can slake your thirst from the pools formed in the creases of broad rhododendron leaves. Sit by a shallow, fishless stream for long enough and you might spot the quick movement of a salamander tail, maybe a flash of orange or brown, or notice a tiny black amphibian face peeking out from behind a smooth stone in the creek.