Lichens' location one of Smokies' best-kept secrets

Associated Press photos/Andres Leighton

Lorena Anaya, 4, from Spain, petted a dolphin at Manati Park in the tourist town of Bavaro, 115 miles east from Santo Domingo. While programs that offer the chance to swim with dolphins are enjoying a boom in popularity, the debate is growing about whether captivity and close interaction with people harms the dolphins.By Duncan Mansfield ~ Associated Press Writer

GATLINBURG, Tenn. -- Along a road to Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains, down an embankment and through a thicket of rhododendron is a secret spot.

Here, on the craggy, moss-covered rocks flanking a bubbling clearwater stream, is the home of the rock gnome lichen, a rare little plant resembling gray-blue AstroTurf that's found only in the southern Appalachians.

"This is a very specific habitat," park service botanist Janet Rock explains. "It is not in the water and yet it is not way away from the water.

"Why wouldn't this thing be all over the place if it wasn't so naturally picky?" she asks rhetorically. "What makes something rare?"

In the case of the rock gnome lichen, scientists don't know. That's why they want to keep coming back to the known spots where the plants grow, and they want to keep those spots a secret.

The lichen already is protected as an endangered species but the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recently decided it would do more harm than good to give the lichens' home special protection as a designated "critical habitat."

Such a designation would require publication of all lichen sites, letting everyone know where they are. That, the service said, would "increase the threat of collection, vandalism or habitat degradation and destruction, both direct and inadvertent."

Lichens apparently are most at risk from those who might love them the most -- overzealous lichenologists who want to pluck forbidden specimens for their private collections. At least one lichen colony in the Smokies was decimated this way in the 1960s.

"Like all plants, they can't move out of the way from some threat," said Brian Cole, state supervisor for ecological services at the Fish & Wildlife office in Asheville, N.C.

"And they don't come back or they come back so slowly it is not meaningful," he said.

Only 32 populations of rock gnome lichen -- some no bigger than a hand -- are known to exist in the mountains of Tennessee, the Carolinas and Georgia. That's down from 40 colonies when the plant was first described in the 1940s; and three fewer than when it was added to the Endangered Species List in 1995.

The Fish & Wildlife decision, published Oct. 9, was supported by a broad spectrum of conservationists -- from the Association for Biodiversity Information to North Carolina's state botanist.

But Marty Bergoffen, campaign coordinator for the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, believes Fish & Wildlife overstated the threats to the lichen and understated the value of protecting its habitat.

The Asheville-based group, along with the Foundation for Global Sustainability in Knoxville, sued Fish & Wildlife in 1999 to force the critical habitat decision over the lichen, a spider and two mussels, all endangered species threatened by air pollution.

The environmentalists lost on the lichen, but won critical habitat protection for the spider and reached an out-of-court deal to get habitat designation next year for the mussels.