Ask people to conjure up images of wetlands and most will give you negative associations -- they're mucky and are full of snakes, biting insects and all sorts of loathsome creatures. Wetlands are mucky and, yes, they do provide habitat for some snakes and a few mosquitoes. But they're also interesting habitats, and here in the southern Appalachians they are very significant ecological communities! Wetlands are probably best described as "lands where the water table is at or near the surface, or where covered by a shallow layer of water." Wetlands may be water-saturated or covered by water year round. Some wetlands, such as ephemeral ponds, are significant because they dry out seasonally, allowing a fish-free environment needed by several amphibian species for breeding. Historically, humans were attracted to streams and rivers because of their value for commerce, primarily for transporting goods. The value of wetlands and swamps however was not so evident. Many early federal programs (e.g. the Swamp Lands Act) provided landowners incentives to destroy wetlands. As a result, many of our original wetlands were ditched, drained and filled in. These efforts resulted in a huge loss of wetlands throughout North America. In NC alone, 90% of all bog and fen habitats have been lost to development. This loss has resulted in the decline of many native species of wetland-dependent waterfowl and wildlife. Even today, we continue to drain and fill wetlands for strip malls, businesses and highways.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is unique for the large diversity of wetlands found along the crests of the 469-mile scenic road. These wetlands include freshwater bogs, fens, wet meadows, marshes and seeps. These unique habitats are generally found in association with headwater streams. What makes them especially important is the large number of rare, threatened and endangered species found in them. More than 90 rare plants and animals are found within these freshwater wetlands including bog turtle, star-nosed mole, Gray's lily, and Cuthbert's turtlehead. Wetlands also provide habitat for other wildlife including beaver, mink, great blue heron, wood duck, woodcock, and spotted salamander One interesting type of wetland along the parkway is meadow bogs or wet meadows. Meadow bogs are wetlands that have been altered by human activities. They are most commonly associated with agricultural lands, primarily grazed pastures. Most meadow bogs are characterized by the five "s": most are spring-fed, with soggy substrate that supports sedges, shrubs and sparse trees. Meadow bogs are particularly important for bog turtle and Gray's lily, which prefer these open sunny wetlands. Meadow bogs and other wetlands serve a number of important ecological functions. During major storm events they act as giant sponges, absorbing excess storm water and slowly releasing these waters into downstream areas, greatly reducing flooding. In addition, they improve water quality by filtering out pollutants and other contaminants. The Blue Ridge Parkway contains more than half of the known high elevation wetlands in NC, and a significant number in VA as well. These areas are unique not only for their abundance of wildlife but for their ability to maintain groundwater levels and protect our underground sources of drinking water. In addition, wetlands provide unparalleled opportunities for educators, students, biologists, and visitors to learn, teach, observe, and enjoy natural resources and wildlife. Finally, wetlands with their diversity and beauty serve an important aesthetic role along the Parkway.