Elk Valley Preserve and Field Station

In the Mountains: The Elk Valley Preserve offers students 70 acres of hands-on learning

The multi-part series “In the Mountains” delves into the history of the area surrounding Lees-McRae College. This article explores a part of Avery County history that serves a vital purpose in the educational mission of Lees-McRae.

The Elk Valley Preserve and Field Station might not exist today if they hadn’t been built over the old Avery County landfill.

Lees-McRae once owned more extensive property in Banner Elk, including the land that is now the Eagle’s Nest and River Run. Over time, the college sold off parcels of land to different entities but couldn’t sell the site that currently houses the Elk Valley Preserve. Although the landfill had been out of use for decades, it still wasn’t suitable for any other construction. The only purpose of the land had been to provide soil for the athletic fields.

When Lees-McRae became a four-year college in 1990 and added the Naturalist concentration to the Biology program (which later became the Wildlife Biology major and Wildlife Rehabilitation minor), administrators and faculty realized the land could be revitalized to benefit students.

Stewart Skeate, professor emeritus of Wildlife Biology, explained in his speech at the 2003 dedication of the field station that the institution had begun “to see this property not as a place to be exploited but a place to be respected, and thus the Elk Valley Preserve was born.”

Multiple distinct biomes comprise the preserve, making it a microcosm of western North Carolina. Within the preserve, students can study the plants and animals that live in a variety of different environments, including open fields, cove forests, and riparian forests, which are wooded areas adjacent to bodies of water. 

The preserve proved to be a perfect laboratory for students to gain field skills and learn about environmental stewardship. Through careful maintenance of the land, the natural diversity of the area flourished, and native species like beavers, wood ducks, and goldenrod returned. Students could get hands-on experience in a controlled environment mere minutes from the college.

Despite the many advantages of the preserve, Skeate said it was “inconvenient to do work out there because we had to keep all our gear on campus and drive it out.” In the late 1990s, then-president Earl Robinson encouraged faculty to submit proposals to gain government funding for various projects. Skeate submitted a proposal for the construction of a field station located in the preserve, and with the support of United States House of Representatives members Cass Ballenger and James Walsh, secured the funding.

At the dedication for the field station, Robinson said, “This field station is designed to preserve a unique part of the natural heritage of these mountains, to provide an opportunity for naturalists to observe a special ecosystem, and to enhance the education of young people who will, in their lifetimes, help to preserve and protect the natural environment for future generations.”

The preserve and field station are the site of active ecological research projects being undertaken by faculty and students, who monitor the area and keep track of the diversity and abundance of the different species that make their home in the preserve and the health of the different biomes.

Wildlife Biology majors are all required to conduct a senior research project, and many choose to work in the preserve. Caele Gardella is one such student. For her senior project, she assisted Michael Osbourn, an assistant professor, with tracking the populations of spotted salamanders that live in the preserve. Every spring, the salamanders congregate in vernal pools, or still fish-free ponds filled with mud and decaying leaves, to lay their eggs. What the researchers didn’t know was where the adult salamanders went after reproducing.

Gardella set up drift fences and cameras around the pools to track the salamanders’ movements, but didn’t have success with photographs. Instead, she and a group of friends went out to the preserve late at night to catch the salamanders in action. They were met with a swarm of salamanders streaking into the trees.

“It was like walking on lava,” Gardella said. “There were that many.”

Gardella transferred to Lees-McRae after her previous school, Green Mountain College, closed. The opportunities available at the preserve through the Wildlife Biology program interested Gardella, who has spent much of her time exploring the preserve or studying at the field station.

“I go out there all the time, rain or snow,” she said. “I love it out there.”

Lucas Price, another Wildlife Biology major who has also worked as a teaching assistant in the program, says he has “taken pretty much every class the school offers” at the preserve, including Introduction to Field Biology, Mammalogy, and Ornithology. Access to an active research environment and the ability to engage with the natural world were draws for him as well.

“The biggest opportunity to students is the opportunity for hands-on experiences,” Price said. “It’s not something you get at every campus.”

In addition to research opportunities in the preserve, students participate in maintenance of the land in a way that protects the different ecosystems. Walking trails through the preserve are kept up to date, invasive trees and shrubs are cleared from the old field, and barriers are set up to prevent erosion in the riparian forest.

Beyond its value to Lees-McRae, the field station and preserve have positively impacted the surrounding community. Local high school students have participated in field trips to the station in the past and the preserve is open to any who want to hike along the trails.

The Elk Valley Preserve was also the site of experimental efforts to control the population of the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, an invasive insect that wreaks havoc on the hemlock populations throughout the eastern states. In the early 2000s, hundreds of predatory Laricobius nigrinus beetles were collected from the Pacific Northwest and released at the preserve to gauge their effect on the adelgids. It was the first such release on the East Coast. In 2014, Lees-McRae hosted biologists from the U.S. Forest Service, Virginia Tech, University of Tennessee, and University of Massachusetts to examine the results, which showed a significant decrease of the adelgids and new hemlock growth.

Access to abundant wildlife for study prepares students for future careers in biology and ecology, and a healthy nature preserve helps protect the local environment for future generations. For the plants and animals who call the preserve home, and the students who build marketable skills while caring for the land, the fact that the preserve was once a landfill is an advantage. Its history saved the area from development and helped Lees-McRae deliver distinctive and unforgettable experiences to generations of students.

By Emily WebbMarch 30, 2021
CommunityCampus LifeAcademics