Its proper name is Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, but it's better, and more accurately, known as the hellbender. It looks like a killer mutant that slithered up from hell. Capable of growing up to 3 feet long, the hellbender is long and tubular, with a set of teeth that can do a dice job on a human hand. So hideous is the hellbender that it's said when anglers hook one by accident, they kill the thing immediately, out of some primal reflex.
Yet the hellbender's greatest threat is not from errant fishermen, but from bumbling bureaucrats. Last month, the U.S. Forest Service released plans that could open up vast swaths of the Chattahoochee National Forest to logging companies. All told, almost half of the forest's 749,000 acres would be "suitable" for logging, according to the plan. Even more acres could be open to all-terrain vehicles.
For its part, the Forest Service claims the plan will maintain the integrity of the wilderness -- even creating habitats for certain threatened and endangered animals. What's more, as a former forest supervisor here concluded back in 1990, rampant logging in the 19th century left this area with no virgin forests. The implication was that further logging won't do any irreversible damage.
We have a hunch the monster salamander might have another opinion. One of the largest salamanders in the world, the hellbender's habitat stretches across the Appalachian Mountains. We're here in the woods of North Georgia to track one down, and to see just how old this forest really is, before it falls to the chainsaw.
We convene inside a Hardee's in Hiawasee, 10 minutes from the North Carolina border, on a gray and chilly morning.
When I arrive, Georgia Forest Watch's staff ecologist, Katherine Groves, and six volunteers are already there. Soon we're joined by two biologists -- Matt Elliott, who works in the University of Georgia Ecology Department, and his wife, Stacy Smith. Both are experts on salamanders. They get paid to dig through soil, and count and identify salamanders for environmental groups, the U.S. Forest Service and the state Department of Natural Resources.
Today's mission is to survey the salamander population in the mountain streams near Kelly Ridge. By comparing their numbers in a young forest versus an old forest, scientists can tell which habitats better support salamander communities.
The trip was organized by Georgia Forest Watch, a nonprofit environmental group that, since its founding in 1986, has faced an uphill battle -- trying to curb the destruction of Georgia's forests, some of the most biologically diverse in the country.
From the highway, a 10-minute rumble over a rocky dirt road leads to the base of Kelly Ridge. We park here and set out on foot on an old logging road.
Depending on your perspective, the Appalachian Mountains either begin or end in
North Georgia. The long line of peaks is just a series of mountains and ridges that stretch 1,800 miles up to Newfoundland. Wherever one ridge curves or intersects with another ridge, you'll find a cove. Someplace in the cove, either up near the top or further down toward the flatlands, there's often a spring where moisture collects. The spring turns into a stream, which empties into another stream, which eventually empties into a river with a recognizable name, which empties into either the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. Here on Kelly Ridge, the streams run into the Hiawassee River, which flows into the Tennessee River, which curves northeast and intersects with the Mississippi, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans.
We're headed for treacherous-sounding places like Rattlesnake Knob, Buzzard Knob and a cove that doesn't even have a name, supposedly some of the last strongholds of the hellbender.
Of the 23 threatened or endangered species in the Chattahoochee National Forest, 13 are plant, 11 are vertebrates, and nine are mollusks.
Poison ivy and dark green ferns cover the ground. Light green ferns, called fiddleheads because they curl like the ends of a violin, grow 2 to 3 feet tall. Bright spots of purple are scattered among the green. They're violets -- hundreds, thousands of them, brightening the brown floor of dead leaves.
Halfway up the stream, Elliott announces it's time for the first survey. He hands out small, green nets and Ziploc bags.
A salamander survey is kind of like an Easter Egg hunt. Surveyors are given a certain area, a certain time period (30 minutes in this case), and are told to catch as many salamanders as they can.
Elliott shouts "OK, go," and the volunteers begin turning over every single rock, log and leaf. Soon they're scrambling after the zipping, slimy salamanders.
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