By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
I get it. You are in the river cooling off. You get bored. You see a bunch of cool, smooth, almost symmetrical stone, river rock that has been worn smooth by years of polishing by the rushing waters of the river. First, you pick up one or two, and maybe you try to skip them across the river to see how many times they will “bounce” before their momentum slows, and gravity takes over. Maybe you just grab the biggest one you can find and throw it so you may see the big splash and the “ker-plunk” sound that it makes. And then you get the bright idea of making a tower out of them with a surrounding mote of river rock as protection for your fortress. Soon, you have every rock in sight gathered at your construction site for use in the upbuilding of your kingdom. And soon you are using your college degree to create a blueprint for how this fabulous rock city will unfold (you thought it was children, didn’t you)?
About this time last year, reporter Scott McKie Brings Plenty wrote an amazing commentary about the damage people do when they move rocks in our streams and rivers. He said it this way, ‘Many of those species’ environments can be altered greatly by the actions of those moving rocks. When people purposefully move rocks in the waterways, to create dams, channels, and rock piles, these changes can harm the sensitive species that live there, especially while they are nesting,’ said Neeley (Jessie Snow Neeley, Great Smoky Mountains National Park executive assistant). ‘For example, the large hellbender salamander lays its eggs under rocks during this time of year. Therefore, they are especially sensitive to rock movement right now and can lose a whole season of reproduction if their nests are damaged from rock movements. Therefore, we ask the public to be gentle while they play and leave rocks where they lay!’
“This practice is illegal in the park per Code of Federal Regulations 2.1(a)(1), ‘…the following is prohibited: (1) Possessing, destroying, injuring, defacing, removing, digging, or disturbing from its natural state: (i) Living or dead wildlife or fish, or the parts or products thereof, such as antlers or nests.’
“Moving rocks disturbs the nests of various species.
“Caleb Hickman, EBCI supervisory biologist, and the team at EBCI Natural Resources have been working for several years to educate the public on the effects of moving rocks to the area’s aquatic ecosystems. ‘It has the potential to remove habitat for a variety of organisms- including directly influencing fish and indirectly our trout industry through their food source (aquatic insects). Lifting or moving larger rocks could influence hellbender (waterdog) habitat during a critical time right now- they are starting to breed and need rocks for protecting eggs. After they hatch, the hellbender babies will be using smaller rocks to hide from fish predators in a few months from now and be pretty vulnerable for a couple of years.’”
Part of what we, as Cherokee people and as Appalachian residents, cherish about our community is that we get to experience an environment mostly untouched by human hands. Visitors from all over the world come here to experience the same. It literally takes years to undo the damage done when we go to a pristine area of our Boundary and start flipping rocks over. And once you move it, you can’t un-move it. The delicate biosphere that exists is destroyed by even a momentary disturbance like lifting the rock and then trying to put it back.
Ecosystems are delicate things, there is a chain or circle of life, if you will. Each link, each plant or animal, plays a part in a healthy ecosystem. Damage or destroy one part, and the entire ecosystem may be jeopardized.
I was talking with friends the other day and I mentioned how much of an old softy I was getting to be in my later years. In my early days, I wouldn’t give a second thought to crushing a bug or killing a spider. Now, I am given to pause at the thought of killing just about anything. I consider options like relocating the offender, or relocating myself, if possible, for even the smallest of life forms. To be honest, I even have trouble trashing unwanted plant life. It may be that as you age, you come to a better appreciation of the value of living things, all of them. Oh, I will still dispatch a mosquito that is sucking the life’s blood out of me or rid my home of a destructive ant colony (actually, we have a guy that does that), but indiscriminate, thoughtless destruction of life doesn’t happen much anymore in my life. I try to think before I act. Killing something because it is in the way of a good time for me just isn’t worth it.
Drop by the Oconaluftee Island Park sometime when you have a few minutes to walk and meditate. You will see a gallery of that thoughtless digging up and moving of river rock that happens pretty much daily in the spring and summer months. We, the Tribe, even do it when we want to have a “special event”. I am not saying we have to give up all of our pastimes for the sake of the environment. I am just saying we should think and be selective about when we do it. We should weigh the cost to the environment versus the benefit to our sense of wellbeing. We may find that our wellbeing might be better served if we preserve the environment.
Teach your kids, yes, even your college-age kids, the value of leaving nature be. Most of the people who come here and experience nature in all its glory, say they want to come back to it as soon as they can. Well, the chances of it being here when you get back depend on how you treat it while you are here. We don’t have to act like we live under a rock, but for some species, living under a rock is life or death.