I’ll never forget the first time I was entranced by a salamander. My Ecology and Field Biology class was at the Sandy Bottom Wetland Preserve, and an Eastern newt, with a bright orange speckled belly, captured my heart. We were there to learn how to survey for salamanders using coverboards and drift fences. Our two-hour adventure yielded several salamander species – including a big slimy salamander – and a few frogs. I immediately fell in love with the little creatures, and that day became one of my favorite labs in the class.
Sandy Bottom Wetland Preserve is a 35-acre forest along the French Broad River in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s home to an extraordinary amount of biodiversity, particularly of Southern Appalachian herpetofauna. In fact, the wetland boasts being one of the locations with the most salamander species in the world due in part to the unique (and disappearing) spring-fed habitat that includes vernal pools. Because these pools seasonally dry up, you won’t find any fish in them. The absence of this competition allows the salamanders (or “mandies” as I affectionately call them) to thrive.
This type of wetland is a rare site on our landscape, mainly due to floodplains being converted to agricultural land. Sandy Bottom is cut off from the French Broad River by NC Highway 191, which the Department of Transportation plans to widen. If completed, Sandy Bottom, the biodiversity it supports - including the rare mandies – and the valuable educational opportunities it provides, could be lost.
Throughout my time at UNC Asheville, I’ve ventured out to Sandy Bottom for a variety of learning experiences, from conducting bird surveys to learning how to find herps. Sometimes my friends and I would practice tree and shrub identification skills for Woody Plants class while walking to the next coverboard during Herpetology. Each time, I thought about how lucky we were to have this important and rare habitat as an outside classroom.
Defenders of Wildlife, MountainTrue, North Carolina Wildlife Federation and Southern Environmental Law Center have asked the state to legally classify Sandy Bottom as a Unique Wetland. This state classification would provide extra protections for the wetlands and the flora and fauna within. I accompanied Defenders of Wildlife staff to a public hearing on January 21st to hear public testimony about the reclassification and was happy to learn that the people overwhelmingly supported protecting Sandy Bottom, and had similar stories of belonging and love for the landscape that I do! One concerned citizen grew up listening to the lullaby of the spring peepers in the wetland and played their song for us. She urged us to imagine not hearing it anymore, and it really hit home. We owe it to these creatures and our natural heritage to protect Sandy Bottom.