Snow Mountain Stewardship Area

PRISM’s first success story is still being written, but it is off to a great beginning. A landowner and PRISM member in Greene County, Jim Hurley, is the Area Steward for Snow Mountain on the lower slopes of Hightop Mountain. He and his partner, Susan Roth, own 156-acres of forest and fields in the Chesapeake Bay headwater drainage that includes Snow Mountain. Both are master naturalists and botanists by avocation. Their land has a strict non-timbering conservation easement intended to “maintain the natural state of the woodlands.” Jim has extensive experience leading volunteers and using contractors to combat invasive plants in multiple parks and two homeowners associations in Arlington and Fairfax Counties. The couple began to control invasive plants on their land in 2013, wielding backpack sprayers, saws and clippers themselves, as well as hiring contractors to do some of the work. In 2015, the Virginia Department of Forestry and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service awarded them two-year and three-year grants respectively to control invasive plants and restore habitat on their property.

Japanese honeysuckle overruns field
Japanese honeysuckle overruns this former field where native trees struggle to make a comeback.

Beginning in the summer of 2015, Jim and Susan reached out to neighbors higher up on the mountain to expand the control effort. The five major ravines on the Hurley-Roth property are fed from the neighbors’ land above, and the water following downhill carries the seed of invasive plants with it. They requested their neighbors’ permission and support in extending the conservation work to include their properties and create the Snow Mountain Stewardship Area. The stewardship area consists of about 600 acres owned by 12 families. This acreage consists mostly of forest on steep slopes with some open riparian areas and numerous ravines whose creeks converge downstream with Parker Branch, the Rivanna River, the James River, and the Chesapeake Bay. Each property has the potential to infest and reinfest the others and contains a number of diverse plant community types whose integrity is in danger. Some two-thirds of the target area is in conservation easement and cannot be developed; the remainder is unsuited for development. It is a rural community; some landowners are farmers or blue-collar workers whose land has been in the family for generations, others have retired from white-collar careers to enjoy Snow Mountain’s wild beauty. None have the time, funds or expertise to combat the invasion of exotic vines, trees, and grasses that are destroying their beloved land.

The Snow Mountain Stewardship Area is wooded with beautiuful trees that are threatened by non-native vines and grasses.
The Snow Mountain Stewardship Area is wooded with beautiful trees that are threatened by non-native vines and grasses

Jim and Susan decided to launch a war on Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegeum vimineum), the invasive of greatest concern on their property and the six properties adjoining them on their uphill borders. This grass, which has the capacity to carpet the forest floor and to displace native vegetation, travels primarily by dispersing its seeds in flowing and surface water. It is then further spread by wildlife, cars and foot traffic. This prolific annual grass came to the U.S. in 1919 from China as a dried, but seed-laden, packing material. It grows in sun or shade, wet or dry environments. In sunny moist places, it reaches 4 or more feet tall. In a forest, it may grow only 6 inches tall, but it sets seed in late summer and fall no matter its size, creating a seed bank for future years. No native insects or animals feed on it, so this grass provides no ecosystem services.

In the Snow Mountain Stewardship Area, Japanese stiltgrass occurs in both small and large patches on the forest floor and covers large areas along old unused forest roads, streamsides, and riparian areas. The worst infestations occur under power lines and along roadsides where the sun fuels its growth. Jim deemed the infestation on Snow Mountain to be at a controllable level. However, if left unchecked, in the near future the stiltgrass’ exponential spread would smother native wildflowers and prevent germination of shrubs and trees all over the mountain, in effect destroying the local habitat and creating a monoculture of a single nonnative species on the forest floor. Without collaboration and cooperation from neighboring properties, this is a bleak but realistic future scenario for this area. With a concerted community-wide effort, the stiltgrass can be brought under control in the targeted area, and health and biodiversity can be restored to this beautiful natural environment in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

This trail in the Snow Mountain Area Stewardship is overrun with invasive Japanese stiltgrass, which is beginning to spill into the woods. Once in the woodland it will prevent forest regeneration and smother wildflowers.
This trail in the Snow Mountain Area Stewardship is overrun with invasive Japanese stiltgrass, which is beginning to spill into the woods. Once in the woodland, it will prevent forest regeneration and smother wildflowers

Five of the six neighbors Jim and Susan approached agreed to allow them to do the control work on their land.  Some of these neighbors had been unaware of the problem and others had been concerned but had no funds to do anything about the grass. Using their own grants and their own funds to hire contractors, as well as employing their own sweat equity, Jim and Susan began the effort to control the stiltgrass on Snow Mountain in the late summer of 2015. Treatment was completed for the year by mid-September. Treatment continues in 2016. One more landowner has joined the effort and Jim and Susan intend to extend the work to the next six landowners on the mountain in the coming years. Hopefully, this two-year blitz will set the stiltgrass back to where it is only a minor nuisance that is easily contained in future years. They hope that the good work being done around them and will encourage all neighbors to join in the effort to protect their land. The story is still being written, but it portends a happy ending.