The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Wither wisteria: ‘People care about our land’

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IMG 4106Anne Child removes invasive exotic plants during a recent Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning event to mark National Public Lands Day at TVA’s Worthington Cemetery in Oak Ridge. Ben Pounds/Hellbender Press

Citizens pay it back on Public Lands Day in Oak Ridge, Smokies and beyond

OAK RIDGE — Rain drizzled as volunteers dug and clipped plants in woods around an old cemetery turned science lab.

It was a Public Lands Day event at Tennessee Valley Authority Worthington Cemetery Ecological Study area in Oak Ridge near Melton Hill Lake. Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, an environmental organization based in Oak Ridge, led the Sept. 24 work party in support of American public lands.

Other events were held throughout the country to mark the date (including Great Smoky Mountains National Park), which has proven itself to be the most productive day of the year for citizen sweat equity in public lands.

In Oak Ridge, the volunteers were decapitating wisteria vines, which alone could one day take over the cemetery. Volunteers also ripped out privet, autumn olive and other invasive plants nearby to give space for native plants to grow.

“When those exotic plants come here and they have no enemies, they will begin to take over all plants, and our native plants will be lost. We need our native plants because they have supported our ecosystem for millennia. And we need our ecosystem to stay alive so that we have pure water to drink and food to eat,” TCWP executive director Sandra Goss said.

“It’s always a pleasure,” to host such events, she said. “People care about our lands and keeping trails open and getting rid of exotic plants, and it’s wonderful how they help out and help our public lands,” she said.

James Groton, a TCWP board member, said wisteria was one of the worst such invasive and exotic plants.

“It climbs and then it also sends runners out,” he said. The cemetery is an important historical resource, especially given the connection to a nearby slice of “nice prairie,” a rare type of biome in East Tennessee.

Larry Pounds (the author’s father), another TCWP board member, said he didn’t know the origin of the exotic wisteria that grew near the cemetery.

“Native wisteria never gets as aggressive as this kind of stuff does,” he said.

“We’re not going to eliminate it obviously, but we can keep it from overwhelming the cemetery, having the vines grow over the top of the stones,” he said. He said the nearby prairie was an “ecological effort,” not just to remove exotics but to keep it open as prairie.

Groton, pulling up plants with an uprooter as he spoke, advised against planting what he called “aggressive” exotic plants like privet, mimosa, climbing bittersweet, bush honeysuckle and autumn olive, all of which were plants he’d seen that day.

Watching the event was Ann Worthington, whose family members are buried nearby. Her family left what is now Oak Ridge at the end of 1942. The federal government forced them and others to move to create a fenced-in city for the workers who enriched uranium for atomic bombs used on Japan at the end of WWII.

“It’s wonderful to be out here with so many volunteers who help maintain this cemetery and also keep the invasive plants pushed back and removed,” she said.  

She ponders the native plants that grew here when the Worthingtons arrived around 1795. 

To the east, in the Smokies, volunteers were rallied by Cherokee leaders and local and federal interior and public health officials, including National Park Service Director Chuck Sams.

“National Parks have long been recognized as spaces for people to develop life-long connections to healthy, outdoor activities,” Sams said in remarks provided by Smokies public information officials. “I am honored to be here on the ancestral lands of the Cherokee people, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to thank people for their stewardship and care for one of our amazing parks.” 

The connection between the health of our public lands and the health of the public has been recognized since 1918, when the director of the National Park Service and the U.S. Surgeon General signed an interagency agreement that created one of the oldest agreements between government agencies, according to the park service. Through this agreement, the agencies have been working together for more than 100 years to promote health and prevent disease by sharing public health expertise. 

“We know that physical activity has ‎many health benefits,“ said Rear Admiral Denise Hinton, U.S. Deputy Surgeon General. “Getting outdoors, connecting to nature and volunteering can help reduce stress and improve your emotional well-being and your physical health. I am proud to be here from the Office of the Surgeon General, in partnership with the National Park Service, to promote our parks as one of the greatest health resources available to our nation.”

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