Santeetlah Creek, NC    Jess Riddle
   Sep 08, 2004 07:07 PDT 

Approximately 10 miles south of the western portions of the Smokies,
Santeetlah Creek flows from the Tennessee-North Carolina state line to its
mouth of Santeetlah Lake, and ranges between 2000 and 5500 feet elevation.
The forests and ruggedness of the terrain give the area a feel similar to
much of the NC side of the Smokies. Apparently, the timing of the
construction of the lake combined with the ruggedness of the terrain to
limit the activities in the area of the major timber companies that
denuded much of the southern Appalachians in the early 1900’s. The large
tributary of the north side of the watershed, Little Santeetlah Creek, is
well known for the 5000+ uncut acres in that drainage now protected in the
Joyce Kilmer Wilderness. The rest of the watershed did not receive
similar protection, and large sections look like the Forest Service clear
cut them about 40 years ago, although some of the second growth in the
lower reaches appears significantly older. Commonly, the Forest Service
cut areas extending up slope from a road following Santeetlah Creek or one
of the streams tributaries leaving corridor of uncut forest between the
road and the stream. Several stretches along the main stream have steep
slopes and old crowns on the slopes opposite the roads indicate the
corridor extends much higher on those slopes.

Coming down through a cove on one of those slopes along I was impressed to
see the soils were rich enough to support mixed mesophytic forest with
white ash over three feet dbh even though the cove was not deep and was
inclined at 35 degrees. Eagerly anticipating what lay in the north-facing
flats down below, I continued descending the cove, but I soon found myself
standing atop high eroded banks in the midst of a multitude of coppices
with no single stem over 10 inches dbh. Judging by the branch whorls on a
pin cherry growing out of a roadbed, the Forest Service clear-cut the
entire lower section of the cove in the 1980’s. At know point in time
would this site have been among the most appropriate to cut on the
National Forest. The stature of the trees and general quality of the
forest would have clearly distinguished this site from the bulk of the
Nathahala NF, even in the eyes individuals lacking experience with
old-growth. The explanation for the unwholesome event that initially
leaps to mind is a desire to maximize board-foot output overrode all other
concerns and reasoning.

The watershed has been forced to endure not only continued logging
pressure but also assaults by exotic diseases. Hemlock woolly adelgid is
ubiquitous in the area, and individual hemlocks range from ostensibly
healthy to having completely defoliated upper crowns. Typically the large
hemlocks in the area have a gray appearance and the tops are sparse with a
mixture of live and bare twigs. I encourage anyone who has the
opportunity to visit western NC in the next couple years to visit either
this area or Cataloochee in the Smokies for easy viewing of forest
dominated by ancient hemlocks before heavy mortality occurs. Gravel
forest service roads in good condition, easily navigated by my Honda
Civic, provide easy access, and in a couple of areas follow the edges of
the stands for over a mile. Many of the hemlocks exceed 300 years in age,
and I have not seen any other area with as great a concentration of
complex crown structures; high forks, upturned branches, and generally
gnarled crowns are abundant in the upper sections. All of the trees
listed below under either Johns Branch or Santeetlah Creek are visible
from the roads. Michael Davie and Will Blozan also included descriptions
of the hemlocks in the area in postings this spring on Joyce Kilmer.

On a more positive note, Indian Creek, a northward following tributary,
still supports approximately 718 acres of old-growth forest, delineated by
Rob Messick and Don Debona. Also Santeetlah Creek remains one area in the
Appalachians thus far not impacted by beech bark disease. Picturesque,
wind sculpted forests of stunted beech and yellow birch still grow atop
Stratton Bald at the edge of the watershed, and beeches still grow next to
the old hemlocks in the upper portions of the stands. In those areas,
yellow birch is probably the most common species. Basswood grows
intermixed among the other species, and richer patches support sugar
maple. Lower elevation parts of the stands also include northern red oak
and tuliptree. Rhododendron, while covering the vast majority of the
stands, generally does not rich the densities achieved in parts of the
Smokies. Ramps and thigh high stinging nettle cover areas lacking
evergreen understory.

Indian Creek enters Santeetlah Creek at approximately 2750’, and the
largest trees along the creek grow in the uncut forest below 3050’.
Hemlock dominates that area over rhododendron understories with tuliptree,
sycamore, and yellow birch also often reaching the canopy. When Rob
Messick led a survey of the Nanthahala-Pisgah NF for old-growth, the
largest diameter tuliptree, hemlock, sycamore, and white ash all occurred
in this area. I believe I was able to relocate the tuliptree and white
ash in addition to a larger sycamore, but I could not find the 61.5” dbh
hemlock unfortunately. Farther up the creek, the east side of the stream
looks undisturbed, but selective logging likely occurred on the east side.
Most of the tallest hardwoods I encountered occurred in the latter area,
which varied from open understoried to rhododendron cloaked. Basswood and
a mix of other hardwoods made up the canopy with hemlocks persisting along
the stream and on the opposite slope. Jack-in-the-pulpit, foam flower,
stinging nettle, black cohosh, American cohosh, and ramps all occurred
widely in the forest. Intermediate wood fern, partridgeberry, round
leaved violet and shining club moss were more common in the adjacent
hemlock dominated forests, while alumroot and running strawberry-bush were
restricted to rocky areas under mountain maple.

Stratton Gap (Tennessee side)
Ash, White 11’6” x ~116’
Maple, Mountain 1’5.5” x 41.1’

Johns Branch
Hemlock, Eastern 122.6’
Hemlock, Eastern 13’11”
Hemlock, Eastern 15’9.5” x 114.7’

Santeetlah Creek
Cherry, Pin 4’11” x 83’+ (Beside road)
Hemlock, Eastern 13’1” (Beside road)
Hemlock, Eastern 111.8’
Hemlock, Eastern 117.9’
Hemlock, Eastern 118.2’
Hemlock, Eastern 119.5’
Hemlock, Eastern 12’0” x 119.0’
Maple, Red 11’9” (Short)
Tuliptree 145.5’

Indian Creek
Ash, White 12’7.5” x 127.2’ (located by Rob Messick)
Ash, White 10’5” x 139.7’+
Basswood, White 8’0” x 118.2’
Cherry, Black 9’5” x 115.8’+
Cherry, Black 7’0” x 127.7’
Cherry, Black 5’9.5” x 134.2’
Hemlock, Eastern ~136.1’
Hemlock, Eastern 13’11” x 154.8’
Hickory, Bitternut 6’2.5” x 139.3’
Magnolia, Cucumbertree 8’11” x 147.3’
Maple, Red 8’2” x 127.3’
Maple, Sugar 7’8” x 120.1’
Oak, Northern Red 9’9” x 124’
Oak, Northern Red 13’7” x 132.5’
Sourwood 4’2” x 89’+
Sycamore 16’11” x 136.8’
Tuliptree 136.3’
Tuliptree ~136.9’
Tuliptree 17’0” x 154.5’ (located by Rob Messick)

I think the sub-par height of the hemlocks and unusual complexity of the
crowns is closely related, but I can’t fully explain the relationship.
The hemlocks listed were some of the easiest to measure ones, and probably
fairly representative of the area. The basswood is likewise more typical
than representative of the full capacities of the area. The taller white
ash grows ten feet from the cucumbertree, which obscures the top of the
former. The sugar maple grows in the area with the greatest concentration
of tall hardwoods, but I did look at many sugar maples along the creek.
The sycamore is the same one I previously reported at 140’, which may
still be accurate, but I could not locate a top that high with a poor
summer-time view. The tuliptree is absolutely columnar with the first
branch at 92.8’. The Rucker Index for Indian Creek is now 138.65’.

Jess Riddle