What are all those UGA trucks doing on the side of the road?

During one of the Coweeta Listening Project’s first community discussions with the Cowee Community Club, someone asked, “What the heck are you doing out in the streams and why are your trucks always parked on the side of the road?” To answer that question, we asked University of Georgia geography professor David Leigh to share his experiences of working with the Coweeta Long- Term Ecological Research Program (LTER) for more than a decade.

Most of the trucks on the side of the road—whether they are from Georgia, Virginia Tech, Duke, or one of the other universities we work with—are delivering professors and students to research sites. Coweeta LTER researchers are trying to understand the diversity of forest and stream types, and their health, in the Southern Appalachians. To do that they have moved beyond the boundaries of the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory to increase their perspective on the regional landscape, including changes caused by people. They are just as interested in natural causes as human ones. “In fact,” says Leigh, “you have to understand the natural variation before you can make sense of the human changes.”

Leigh’s research focuses on the geomorphology (processes and characteristics of landforms) of the streams. He measures characteristics like stream width, depth, slope, and the type of streambed to understand the stream’s ecological role and the habitats it provides. Other researchers complement Leigh’s research by studying water chemistry and the biotic communities (including insects, salamanders, and fish) living in each stream.

Stream width, explains Leigh, is one of the most adjustable characteristics. Removing streamside vegetation allows water to flow unobstructed and faster and can ultimately result in narrower stream channels. Small streams can be cut down to half of their former width. In this way, actions as simple as cutting down streamside vegetation or removing large logs or other wood from the stream can add up to a very large habitat loss across the whole region: we lose not only the vegetation along the bank, but also the diverse streambed habitats that support insects and the fish who feed on them.

However, research has also shown that stream health does not rest only in the hands of riverside landowners. Another group of Coweeta LTER researchers examined how stream invertebrate and fish populations change according to local land use histories. They found that aquatic species diversity may depend on the health not just of the stream, but of the entire watershed. As importantly, some of the strongest effects on fish and invertebrate populations may come from regional land use changes four or five decades ago. For instance, a stream that received a large amount of sedimentation from poor farming practices from the 1940s and 50s might still show impacts from those past practices even though sediment inputs in that same stream might be closer to natural levels today.

Often, Coweeta LTER researchers are in the streams not to find immediate results, but rather to collect data that gives a historical snapshot so that people decades or even centuries from now can look back and understand what has changed. Few places in the world host such thorough, detailed and long-term research, and Macon County is particularly well suited for this type of work because it is not too developed like Asheville and it is not too uninhabited like the national forests, thus offering a wide range of landscape scenarios.

Leigh has found a lot of interest and support from landowners on the streams he studies, but as a Southern Appalachian native he also understands people’s concerns on seeing someone in their stream parked along the side of the road. Whenever we have to pass through someone’s land to get to a study site, he says, “I always try to go find the landowner and talk to them in person or call them on the phone in advance.” He also hears a lot of concerns about regulation, and he always tries to explain that “what we do actually has no regulatory bite. We’re just doing scientific research to try to understand the physical and biological systems perspective.”

History has shown that humans “have both positive and negative impacts, but you can’t understand what those are until you go out and look.”

That is mostly why those trucks are on the side of the road.


This column is produced by members of the Coweeta Listening Project (CLP), a branch of the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research Program. Views expressed here are not representative of the USDA Forest Service or the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab. Please share questions, comments, or suggestions for future topics at cwtlistn@uga.edu or Coweeta Listening Project, UGA, 210 Field St., Room 204, Athens, Georgia 30602.


Original Citation: The Coweeta Listening Project. Franklin Press. Column on "Science, Public Policy, Community." Page B4. Aug 10, 2012.