Housing Developers Go Native

  • Views like this attract new housing developments around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Photo courtesty of the National Park Service.)

In recent years, the land surrounding America’s national parks has become attractive to residential developers. But the landscaping in these new neighborhoods can often feature aggressive, exotic plants, many of which threaten to choke out native plants. Now, a new program aims to keep these plants from sneaking their way into the nation’s most-visited park. As Matt Shafer Powell reports, the program depends upon an uncommon alliance of environmentalists and developers:

Transcript

In recent years, the land surrounding America’s national parks has become attractive to residential developers. But the landscaping in these new neighborhoods can often feature aggressive, exotic plants, many of which threaten to choke out native plants. Now, a new program aims to keep these plants from sneaking their way into the nation’s most-visited park. As Matt Shafer Powell reports, the program depends upon an uncommon alliance of environmentalists and developers:


Jason Love is standing next to a wall of roadside rock. He’s watching as the mimosa trees anchored in the rock wave in the wind from a passing stream of cars. The cars are all headed to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, only a few miles down the road. These days, he says the mimosas are a predictable part of the landscape for those visitors heading into the park.


“The mimosa was probably planted as an ornamental and from there, was spread by birds eating the seeds, and now, instead of just being in one place in one person’s yard, you can see it up and down the roadside here.”


Love is an ecologist with the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. It’s an environmental education group that works with the Park Service. Love admits the mimosas are beautiful trees, with their brilliant spray of pink and white flowers and their strong perfume-like scent. His problem with them is that they’re killing off some of the plants that have called the Smokies home for thousands of years.


“We see more and more of these invasive exotics creeping up along the park’s edges and that makes it harder to control inside the park because just as birds brought this mimosa here beside us, these same birds go inside the park and carry these same seeds and then the park has to actively deal with it.”


And the park does deal with it the best it can. Each year, the Park Service spends a lot of money and time monitoring the plants inside the park and yanking out any invasives. The question is why, especially if the mimosas are so appealing. Back at the Tremont Institute, Love has a simple answer.


“We love this environment. This is the Smoky Mountains. It has over 130 species of trees, more than all of Europe. And when we bring in these invasive exotic plants, we are lessening that diversity, we’re making it a little less special.”


With new neighborhoods full of exotic invasives creeping toward the park, the park service and the Tremont institute decided the best way to address the problem was by educating developers. So they created a pilot program called the Native Landscape Certification Program. It’s a voluntary program where residential developers like Robin Turner promise to use only native plants in their landscaping schemes. Turner is currently developing a neighborhood on more than seven hundred wooded acres next to the park.


“That’s really why we’re all here. We’re here because of the beauty of this place, I mean we can pick anywhere in the country to live and we’ve picked this region because of the park and because of the National Forest and because of what’s here.”


Turner is sitting on the back porch of his sales office, a refurbished one room schoolhouse that stands only a few feet from a creek that dribbles through the development. He says he wants his exclusive – and expensive – development to blend in seamlessly with the natural landscape of the park. But he says it also has to make financial sense.


“It’s the right thing to do and it’s excellent business. I mean, we will make a very nice living doing this. I think our sales are higher and we’re getting higher prices because of what we’re doing.”


Ultimately, that’s what will determine the success or failure of such agreements. Meredith Clebsch runs an East Tennessee nursery that specializes in native plants.


“It comes down to money with them. Most of the time, they’re not going to be environmentalists like some of us might be, so they’re going to have to have a reason that it’s going to be beneficial to their pocketbook and you know, their customers have to want it.”


For the folks at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, this idea of ecologists and developers reading from the same page takes a little getting used to. Ken Vorhis is the Executive Director of the Tremont Institute. He says he often has some explaining to do to his environmentally conscious friends.


“Some people say, ‘Oh, you’re joining up with the developers, aren’t you? Going over to the dark side?’ And we’re saying “No, these people want to do it right. There are going to be developments, we need economic development, those kinds of things, but can we do it in a way that makes more sense, that’s sustainable, a way that is environmentally friendly.”


Voorhis admits that the Native Landscape Certification Program isn’t going to resolve all of the friction between the forces of development and natural preservation. But he says it may be an important first step.


For the Environment Report, I’m Matt Shafer Powell.

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