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Synchronous fireflies found on Grandfather Mountain

The discovery of a special type of firefly on Grandfather Mountain has experts aglow with excitement.

The nonprofit nature park in Linville is officially home to Photinus carolinus — the only species of firefly in North America whose individuals can synchronize their lighting display. This means they can flash in unison, according to the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.

Photinus carolinus famously resides in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where it is a major draw for visitors from late May through early June. During that time, hopeful spectators enter a lottery to win tickets to witness the phenomenon. With only a limited number of tickets offered, the spectacle has grown ever more exclusive.

The revelation of Photinus carolinus’ existence on Grandfather Mountain comes courtesy of Clyde Sorenson, an entomologist from N.C. State University, according to the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation. While hosting a workshop on the mountain, Sorenson was invited to stay the night in the park’s guest cottage near the Woods Walk and Picnic Area.

“I had the intention to see what kind of fireflies might be around at the high altitude,” Sorenson said.

Around 9:30 p.m., he saw a few fireflies flashing and knew right away that it was something special.

“As it got dark, the numbers steadily went up, and between 10 and 10:30 p.m., there were several hundred all around the guest cottage and Woods Walk, flashing synchronously,” Sorenson said. “I knew what to look for, and apart from the flash patterns, which are species specific, there are neurological features that are distinct. They were doing what they were supposed to be doing, and when I looked at them in my hand, they had all the diagnostic features for that same species.”

Sorenson later confirmed his findings with East Tennessee naturalist Lynn Faust, a preeminent expert on the subject, who, among numerous other publications, wrote a field guide on fireflies, which Sorenson described as “one of the best resources to anyone who is interested in learning more about these critters.”

“You know, this is a really exciting discovery, and on Grandfather Mountain, one of the exciting things about visiting the park is that you never know what you’ll see or find,” said Jesse Pope, president and executive director of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates the Linville nature park.

Sorenson is particularly excited, because synchronous behavior is rare in fireflies, stated the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.

“There’s only a handful of species all around the world that do this, and for a long time, this particular species, the phenomenon of seeing large numbers of them synchronizing has been associated tightly with just a couple geographical areas,” he said. “But the species goes all the way from New York to Georgia. Where they have been most widely known and recognized for so long is at Elkmont in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But that’s at 2,200 feet. Where I saw them (at Grandfather) was at 4,200 feet.”

What makes Grandfather Mountain such a unique location, Sorenson said, is its elevation range. Starting at a relatively low elevation of 3,000 feet, the mountain reaches up to nearly 6,000 feet. While conducting a research survey near the Mile High Swinging Bridge, Grandfather Mountain’s director of education, Amy Renfranz, observed the same fireflies blinking synchronously.

“At the top of the mountain, they blinked in a slower cadence, because the temperature was colder,” Renfranz said. “Males were observed flying low to the ground, and females were perched along the ground. The groups of fireflies would totally sync light rhythms with each other.”

During one survey, Renfranz observed more than 1,000 fireflies from one overlook on the mountain.

“They could start down at the bottom (of the mountain) very early in June and continue well into July, as you go up the mountain,” Sorenson said, “which presents a really unique opportunity for, perhaps, a lot more people to see them over a much longer span of time. Generally, at any given location, they’re really active for about two to three weeks, and then they’re done for the year. But again, because Grandfather has that great elevational span, it’s possible that the display could last for many weeks.”

This would be a boon for the scientific community and spectators alike, he said, as it would offer another opportunity to study Photinus carolinus and observe one of nature’s most marvelous light displays.

“Any time people can witness one of these really neat natural history spectacles, it increases their appreciation for the natural world and their interest in helping preserving it,” Sorenson said.

“This goes hand in hand with Grandfather Mountain’s mission — to inspire conservation of the natural world by helping guests explore, understand and value the wonders of Grandfather Mountain,” Pope said. “I’m beyond excited about this new discovery. And that’s something that makes Grandfather Mountain so special, that a visitor could do the discovering.”

“It tickled me to no end,” Sorenson said. “I was kind of giddy for a little bit.”

Pope noted that Photinus carolinus is a wonderful addition to the pantheon of plants and animals that call Grandfather Mountain home.

With the fireflies now out of season, park staff is in the process of organizing future viewing events in which the public can witness the bugs in action.

“A lot of people come to the park, maybe just to cross the bridge or get close to an animal,” Pope said. “But while they’re here, they’re immersed in a natural experience unlike any other mountain on Earth.”

The not-for-profit Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation strives to inspire conservation of the natural world by helping guests explore, understand and value the wonders of Grandfather Mountain. For more information, call (800) 468-7325, or visit www.grandfather.com to plan a trip.

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Smokable hemp debate fired up in NC legislature
Cops wary of new cash crop, farmers seek to benefit

NEWLAND — Under pressure from state law enforcement, smokable hemp could soon be banned in North Carolina, just months after being legalized at the federal level.

The current version of the N.C. Farm Act, Senate Bill 315, passed the state House on Aug. 21 by a 63-48 vote, with most Democrats including Rep. Ray Russell (D-Boone) voting against the bill, and is currently awaiting to be heard in the state Senate. A previous version that included the smokable hemp ban passed the N.C. Senate in June by a 31-14 vote along party lines, with Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Blowing Rock) voting in favor.

SB315 includes a specific ban on smokable hemp in the state, divergent from the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill – passed by Congress and signed into law in December 2018. The ban would cover smokable hemp, but not hemp products.

“The term ‘marijuana’ includes smokable hemp, but does not include hemp products,” the latest version of SB315 states. Hemp products includes cannabidiol, or CBD, according to the bill. CBD oils, which have become a booming business in 2019, are refined by macerating dried hemp buds in a liquid.

Hemp is a strain of cannabis sativa, one of a small handful of species of cannabis plants. Cannabis plants are best known for being the source of the drug of the same name which goes by a seemingly endless list of street names. Known most commonly as marijuana, the drug is legal for medicinal purposes in a number of states, and legal for recreational use in 11 states plus Washington, D.C., though the drug is still federally illegal.

The 2018 U.S. Farm Bill states that cannabis sativa plants containing less than 0.3 percent Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is now federally legal to grow and process, but anything grown above that threshold must be destroyed. THC is the psychoactive component found in cannabis that in large doses gives users a high from smoking or otherwise ingesting marijuana. The federal law makes no special provision for smokable hemp, which is technically legal per the federal law.

Smokable hemp makes current marijuana laws unenforceable, says Avery County Sheriff Kevin Frye, saying the full legalization of smokable hemp would make current marijuana laws unenforceable, as hemp is difficult to distinguish in smell and appearance from illegal cannabis with a high concentration of THC.

“It tests positive just like marijuana does; it looks exactly like marijuana does; it smells exactly like marijuana does, so now how is a law enforcement officer supposed to determine what’s hemp and what’s marijuana?” Frye said, adding legalizing smokable hemp would be a back-door method of legalizing cannabis.

Frye said that a lack of tests that distinguish between hemp and marijuana could invalidate searches that could uncover other illegal drugs, weapons and so on.

The ACSO is aware of all the legal hemp production in the county and noted that production picked up when certain CBD products like oil became legal. CBD oil is an extract from the hemp plant.

“We as law enforcement understand that the farmers are looking for a really legitimate cash crop,” Frye said.

Asked for his thoughts on the issue, Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman stated that the way officers enforce marijuana laws and the issue of smokable hemp is in the hands of the state legislature.

In a May memo, the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation supported a ban of smokable hemp and CBD oils in all cases with the exception of epilepsy treatment.

When you drive up to Joe Evans’ home outside of Newland, outside of a small sign advertising his CBD oils and salves, there is nothing to indicate he is a hemp grower. The garden in his front yard is planted with vegetables and sunflowers.

Around back is a freshly constructed greenhouse Evans will use to aid his hemp drying and production, and a shed with some of his harvested and dried product sitting inside, including an enormous sack of dried buds, termed hemp biomass, that looks and smells like cannabis.

Evans processes his own product into full spectrum CBD oil.

“You’d be amazed at how many people smoke hemp to get their CBD,” Evans said. “I was totally blown away by the market for it.”

Evans, who has had other entrepreneurial ventures in holistic health, said he started growing hemp because he thinks it helps people, citing testimonies from people who have benefited from his products.

Evans pointed out he and his wife are Christians and he believes people should be allowed to do what they want, as long as it is not causing harm to anyone else or their property. He noted he believes marijuana legalization is coming as well.

“Medical marijuana is coming,” Evans said. “Recreational marijuana is probably coming and it’s going to be like a lot of things. It may go through a birthing process, and it’s going to have its ups and downs, but it’s coming, and the reason it’s coming is because people are going to demand it.”

Evans’ field, a short drive from his home, is located directly across the road from a field of Christmas trees. The hemp, though lighter in color, looks like small Christmas trees from the road.

When asked if he has had any problems with neighbors because of the operation, Evans said some of them are just happy to have access to the products.

That access is what farmers in Indiana are fighting for. According to various media reports, several Indiana-based farmers and CBD store owners are suing the state and its governor Eric Holcomb for outlawing smokable hemp in a law passed in May. The suit, which is currently ongoing, claims that the Indiana law is in violation of the 2018 U.S. Farm Act and other federal legislation that previously defined industrial hemp.

Steve Behr / Photo by Steve Behr 

App State kicker Chandler Staton (91) kicks a field goal as Xavier Subotsch holds.

NCDOT to include pedestrian/bike path on east Boone project

BOONE — The planned Bamboo Road/Wilson’s Ridge Road widening project will include a multi-modal path for pedestrians and cyclists that is separated from the street along the Bamboo Road section of the project, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation.

“We still have some stuff to go through before this is filed,” said NCDOT Division 11 Engineer Mike Pettyjohn. “We’re looking at one side of the road for bike and pedestrians with curb and gutter as a barrier.”

According to Pettyjohn, the 10-foot-wide path would would go down the west side of Bamboo Road from the Wilson’s Ridge Road intersection to the realigned intersection with U.S. 421. The path would not continue onto the newly-widened Wilson’s Ridge Road, Pettyjohn added.

The potential addition comes after public comment that started in February, when the project was unveiled to local leaders and the public. Pettyjohn said the multi-modal path proposal came from those public comments.

The potential multi-modal path could be the first of its kind in Watauga County, according to Dave Freireich, a member of the local pedestrian and cyclist safety advocacy nonprofit Harmony Lanes.

Freireich has pushed for multi-modal paths in Watauga, with a green area, curb and gutter between the paths and the road for increased safety, and calls the proposed Bamboo Road path the “East Boone Connector.”

“The East Boone Connector addition would be the first planned, engineered, safe multi-modal corridor in Watauga County, for the fastest growing part of the county,” Freireich said.

While the road widening would be fully funded by NCDOT, the multi-modal path would require a local match to construct.

“Local communities have an opportunity to get the East Boone Connector built for only 30 percent of the project cost; the NCDOT will pay the rest,” Friereich said.

Pettyjohn said the 30 percent number would be the maximum amount of a local match required and could be less. Since the project goes in and out of Boone town limits, both Watauga County and the town of Boone would have to financially contribute, Pettyjohn said.

The original project proposed in February included a four-foot shoulder and no sidewalks.

Currently, the project is part of the 2020-2029 Strategic Transportation Improvement Project that is set for final adoption in September.

The plan is to widen from 10-foot to 12-foot road lanes along the 1.9-mile stretch going from the intersection of U.S. 421 and Bamboo Road to Bamboo and Wilson Ridge Road and ending at Wilson Ridge and Deerfield Road.

“It’ll be a really good project, there’s a lot of traffic through there for safety and for mobility as we look through the multi-modal pathway,” Pettyjohn said.

Roundabouts are also planned at the intersections of Wilson Ridge and Deerfield, Wilson Ridge and Bamboo and Bamboo and Brook Hollow Road. The current 17-percent-plus grade incline on Wilson’s Ridge Road would be decreased to less than 12 percent, according to the original plans.

The Bamboo Road and U.S. 421 intersection would be realigned in the plans, which could be expanded to a four-way stop to incorporate the entrance to the planned town of Boone municipal services complex.

The estimated cost of the project was $9.5 million, not including right-of-way acquisition. The project was pushed back to start right-of-way acquisition after June 2020 with construction starting in the 2021 fiscal year, according to Pettyjohn. The construction would take at least three years, Pettyjohn said.