Floods change face of Shenandoah park

July 23, 1995|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Sun Staff Writer

LURAY, Va. -- The scientists in Shenandoah National Park look at the landslides, the washed-out roads, the tangled trees left by last month's violent floods -- the kind of flood that happens maybe once every 1,000 years -- and don't see destruction.

They look at the ravaged landscape and call it "change."

"It's not a sense of tragedy," said Bob Krumenaker, unit leader of the park's Center for Resources. "It's a sense of awe.

"We find it very exciting."

In late June, rains hovered over central Virginia and soaked the region. On June 27 and 28, storms let loose 10 to 12 inches of water in about 12 hours. At least eight people died in the areas below the mountains.

"There is tremendous devastation in the local communities," said Tom Blount, the Shenandoah National Park ecologist. "But from the point of view of ecology, this is an opportunity to assess how these events occur."

Most of Shenandoah National Park looks much as it did before the floods. But in the areas that were hit hard, the landscape has been drastically rearranged.

Thousands of giant trees were swept down mountainsides, which are now scarred by brown gashes through the forests. Creeks that trickled along narrow green paths now run through hundred-foot-wide beds of rock.

Stream beds were scoured clean of plants, including some uncommon mountain varieties, as gravel and boulders crashed through them.

"It must have been pretty noisy out there," said Julie Thomas, an environmental protection specialist at the park, which draws 2 million visitors a year to hike, fish, camp and explore Skyline Drive.

A stream in which scientists counted 800 fish of 15 species the week before the storm held only six fish of four species a week after.

Scientists view the shifts wrought by nature in a single week as an opportunity for study unlike any they've had in their lifetimes.

Over the next months, they will assess how the landscape is different, whether plants and fish and insects survived, how the water chemistry was altered -- the effect such flooding has on all forms of life on the mountains.

"The potential for study is astounding," Ms. Thomas said.

"Shenandoah has recognized that scientific information is critical managing this park," Mr. Krumenaker said. "How do you preserve these places if you don't understand what they are?"

Shenandoah National Park includes 500 miles of trails. Only about 50 miles of them were damaged by the flooding.

Rangers find drastic changes

But in the first days after the flood, rangers began hiking into the areas they know best inside the park and were stunned by what they found.

"Everywhere they looked, it would be something new," Ms. Thomas said.

They videotaped their first forays into the damaged areas -- and on the tapes sound surprised at what they're seeing.

"Where the heck did the road go?" asked Ranger Shawn Green as he hiked through the southern area of the park and saw trails end in piles of boulders and stacks of trees.

"It was here. . . . Oh, there it is."

"Things just aren't the same here," he said later as he cataloged more than a dozen landslides in one region of the park.

"Ripped the whole hillside off," he said at another place. "New cliffs and bedrock."

Jim Atkinson, the park wildlife and fisheries biologist, hiked into an area farther north.

"This, shall we say, is the new Rapidan River, as seen July 6, 1995," he said as his video camera panned a stream filled with rocks and splintered tree trunks.

Rick Webb, of the University of Virginia Department of Environmental Sciences, has spent years studying watersheds in Shenandoah National Park.

He was astonished by what he saw when he flew over the park last week.

"Little streams that you couldn't see from the air because of the canopy of the trees, now they're 100 feet wide and out in the sun," he said.

Small mountain streams had filled with rushing water that ripped away their banks and tore chunks out of trails that ran alongside.

Boulders and gravel blocked and rerouted some creek beds.

"There are new waterfalls all over the park," Ms. Thomas said. "Whether they're permanent or not, we don't know."

Because the park's scientists over the past few years had begun an inventory of Shenandoah's wildlife, they had stark evidence of the flood's effects on plants and fish.

Some fish from the colder, higher streams may not survive if they've been washed to warmer waters below.

The assessment team will have to decide if the park should restock fish in streams where they used to thrive or leave the waters alone and see what happens over time.

Some uncommon plants lost

Randy Winstead, the park botanist, said he's already found some "infrequent, uncommon" varieties of plants were washed away.

Among them, "white monkshood, a little plant with a white flower," was swept from the ground it occupied on the north fork of the Moorman's River in the southern end of the park.

The knowledge that experts may gather could apply to understanding nature in other areas.

"This is basic science," Mr. Webb said

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