Being fire: Volunteers help preserve a classic East Tennessee cedar barren

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BarrensA volunteer removes invasive plants from an Oak Ridge cedar barren as part of a Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning effort to keep the barren in its natural prarie state.  Anna Lawrence/Hellbender Press

Volunteers play the part of fire to maintain the native grasses and wildflowers at an Oak Ridge cedar barren

OAK RIDGE — It’s called a barren, but it’s not barren at all. It’s actually a natural Tennessee prairie, full of intricate, interlocking natural parts, from rocks and soil to plants and insects and animals.

There’s lots of life in these small remaining unique collections of grasses and conifers that are typically known, semi-colloquially, as cedar barrens. 

Many of these “barrens” have been buried beneath illegal dumping or asphalt, but remnants they are still tucked away here and there, including a small barren in Oak Ridge owned by the city and recognized by the state as a small natural area.

The seven-acre cluster of cedars, large hardwoods and small open patches of native grasses such as long stem, blue stem and Indian grass, used to be much larger. A large portion of the original barren now lies beneath medical facilities, commercial development and a community college campus in the area of Fairbanks Road and Briarcliff Avenue.

These unique ecosystems need fire to thrive, and modern firefighting practices, road building and development have stopped this semi-regular natural cleanse of woody plants, shrubs and natural and exotic invasives, which encroach upon and can ultimately overcome the natural plants in these vanishingly rare grasslands.

In many instances, humans have replaced fire to ensure these special places don’t disappear. 

That’s why three dozen people showed up on a chilly but sunny Saturday in early March to strip shrubs, saplings and even larger trees from the small but classic barren adjacent to Jefferson Middle School. The goal: Help its small grassland expand and avoid terminal encroachment from incompatible vegetation.

Cedars take well to the shallow, rocky soil that is characteristic of these communities, but the most important features of these vanishing places are native prairie grasses and accompanying rare plants and wildflowers and their associated insect and animal species.

“We are doing what nature used to do with the occasional wildfire,” said Tim Bigelow, a board member of Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, which organizes the barren weed wrangles several times a year.

Natural and intentional low-intensity ground fires historically nurtured such landscapes, eliminating woody plants and ensuring there was enough open space and sunlight for the associated grasses and flowers to thrive in a prairie environment. 

And yes, there are prairies in Tennessee. Historically, most of these barrens were on or near the Cumberland Plateau or along the Kentucky

border, but a few remain, against all odds, in East Tennessee. 

This particular barren was described years ago by the late Hal DeSelm, a prominent East Tennessee-based botanist who was fascinated by barren and glade communities and whose work recording these terrestrial systems was featured in a previous Hellbender Press article.

Bigelow is the informal caretaker of the seven-acre cedar barren adjacent to the middle school. He once attended Jefferson, and its students now use the natural area as an outdoor laboratory. 

Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, an Oak Ridge-based conservation group, organizes about three such “weed-wrangling” work days at the barrens each year.  The main targets are invasive species such as bush honeysuckle, privet, English ivy, and lespedeza, but work crews also remove native woody plants that can hinder growth of the native grasses endemic to the peculiar plant community.

“The habitat is unique and uncommon in East Tennessee. Because of the ecological characteristics there are a lot of rare plants, and the habitat itself is unique,” said Jimmy Groton, a biologist, forest ecologist and member of TCWP.

“This little patch of cedar barren has three state-listed rare plants,” Groton said as dozens of determined volunteers fanned out before him armed with saws, shovels, loppers and elbow grease. Those rare plants are prairie goldenrod, naked stem sunflower and mountain mint. 

This particular pine barren has been whittled away in every direction, but what remains is very special to a lot of people.

Larry Pounds, a well-known East Tennessee ecologist associated with Oak Ridge Natural Laboratory, actually takes umbrage at the word “barren” when used as a descriptive term for these unique natural communities.

“Barren is a word that means a bad place to have a farm,” he said half jokingly as he made way for volunteers dragging downed saplings up a trail.

“There go the redbuds!” he exclaimed. “Native stuff can wipe out a prairie just as fast as invasive species,” if they are not controlled by fire or otherwise removed, Pounds noted. 

Thus the semi-regular work crews don’t shy from the redbud and other hardwoods or pines during the wrangles. They even remove the eponymous cedars. The trees are associated with the barrens because they can easily establish themselves in the shallow, rocky, calcium-rich soil that underpins traditional Tennessee Valley and Cumberland Plateau prairie communities.

The importance of maintaining these barrens is not just about preserving grasses and aesthetic open spaces, Pounds said. Many insect and animal communities depend on these prairies for shelter and food.

Numerous bird species call prairie communities home, including the now-elusive bobwhite quail, once a common, wide-ranging and oft-hunted bird known for its familiar call.

“Bobwhites, you never hear them any more. It’s a strange thing,” Pounds said.

The habitat available at the moment for bobwhites and other grass-nesting birds in the Oak Ridge barrens is limited, but Pounds and a host of other volunteers are expanding it, slowly but surely.

“We keep pushing out the edges a little bit … so we can give the rest of the vegetation a chance to grow,” he said.

And nature is lending a hand. Some rare plant species originally recorded in one area of the small preserve have expanded into other parts of the landscape without any human intervention.

That in itself represents a small but important victory.

“Rare plants, by definition, are not a large part of the ecosystem. A lot of these species are connected to insects. When the plant goes extinct, they go extinct, too.

If you lose a species, it’s like losing a library,” Pounds said.

Carinne Cheney, an Oak Ridge High School graduate studying microbiology at the University of Tennessee, joined the wrangle as a member of the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega.

But she was motivated by more than that. Cheney, who has helped with similar weed wrangles at Seven Islands State Birding Park, said she enjoys making friends and hearing stories from like-minded individuals on such work parties, as well as the immediate and visible results the work yields. 

“You can see the change you’ve made,” she said.

“I personally love nature, and hiking,” she said, but “it’s important to go out and make an impact on the community around you.”

That applies to plant communities, too, including the disappearing native cedar barrens so many are helping and hoping to preserve.

Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning offers frequent Knoxville-area volunteer opportunities to support its mission.


Recommended further reading and viewing

Mid South Guide to Grasslands

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