From the left, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company natural resources supervisor Adam Wallace, Warren Wilson College garden manager Ben Mackey, Warren Wilson forest manager Shawn Schwartz, and Hickory Nut Gap Meats owner Jamie Ager. / Photo by Mark-Ellis Bennett

Asheville Museum of Science recently held a panel discussion about land stewardship at The Collider.

Dr. Dave Ellum, professor of Ecological Forestry and Dean of Land Resources at Warren Wilson College, moderated the event. He said that land is so important to the fabric of Warren Wilson College.

“It’s integral to everything we do. Being positioned in the Swannanoa Valley, a really sacred and important place in this region, land initiatives and land management in this area are really something we can contribute to the community.”

The panel included Warren Wilson forest manager Shawn Schwartz, Jamie Ager who with his wife Amy are the founders and operators of Hickory Nut Gap Meats, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company natural resources supervisor Adam Wallace, and Warren Wilson College garden manager Ben Mackey. The garden raises fruits, vegetables, medicinal herbs, draft horses, and bees, tended by 31 students this year.

Ellum gave a brief overview of the program.

“The first is the idea of natural variation, the historical range of variability in ecosystems,” Ellum said. “We can argue and project how temperature and rainfall are going to change, but the one thing we need to keep in mind is that things are going to change over time. What has been our range of variation for fire and precipitation events over the past 100 to 200 years has fallen within certain boundaries. How do we deal with it when these events come outside the norms that we’ve built our infrastructures societal systems around?”

Ellum posed the question to the panel, as land managers, how do you add resilience to systems you’re working with to protect them from entering new states in the face of climate change?

Ager said that it is necessary to build systems that are more resilient to conditions of drought such as rotational grazing and good cattle management practices to build up more organic matter in the soil, therefore increasing water holding capacity.

Schwartz had a different perspective.

“Unfortunately, climate change is a global phenomenon, and land holdings that we’re individually responsible for as land managers are not of the scale at which you try to address an issue like climate change. First and foremost we need to become active to stop the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Above and beyond that in looking at forest from a landscape perspective you can become active as a landowner and find out where your farm fits into that landscape analysis.”

Schwartz noted that the southern Blue Ridge has a lot of different systems identified by elevation and in which direction they face.

“I think if we tried calling climate change ‘global weirding,’ rather than global warming, we’d be able to understand the phenomenon a little better. Things are becoming more atypical, and the best models coming out show rain events in larger amounts at shorter durations with longer drier periods. Even though there are variations, over all temperatures are warming. What that means for forest in the Blue Ridge is that ecosystems such as spruce fir forest will become more threatened, as they become smaller islands. What used to by typical for all of North Carolina is now found only at elevations above 5,000 feet.”

Heavy rain will affect the drier bottom lands with serious flooding, Schwartz said.

“Invasive species inhabiting those areas would accompany a shift in species. While old pine forests may become more susceptible to fire, I don’t predict it will be like what’s happening out west in terms of wildfires,” Schwartz said.

Tree species native to the Blue Ridge live an average of 80 to 120 years.

“It may become appropriate to do some artificial regeneration because the rate at which tree species move north as the climate warms is not going to match the rate at which the climate increases. Farmers know we are in zone 7A, but may be in zone 8 at some point,” said Schwartz. “It’s much easier to shift agricultural crops that are on an annual or bi-annual cycle to match that, or fruit trees that live eight to 20 years, than it is for trees that live 80 to 120 years.”

Wallace confirmed that he agreed with the comments that preceded his.

“Improving the soil quality by building up organic matter will increase the resilience of the entire watershed. It also sequesters carbon in the atmosphere,” Wallace said. “We need to have a diversity of crops. Ideally you are managing crops in different ecosystems within your own farm.”

Wallace said that regional food systems are important to resiliency.

“As a national food system we rely heavily on other food ecosystems which are going through similar things, possibly in more extreme ways,” he said.

This might result in specific food shortages due to various weather events.

“Developing those regional food systems is I think is a major part of our national resiliency,” Wallace said.

Mackey said most homeowners overlook the importance of land development on residential property.

“One huge thing we stand to improve upon is storm water management,” Mackey said. “As a society we need to bring awareness to implementing improvement on water quality. It affects not just the land that we’re on, but also the stream ecosystems. All the impervious surfaces on developed land contribute to some of the larger floods we’re seeing out there. You want your landscape to look as good as possible, but you want to do it in a responsible way.”

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