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Hands off the rare plants

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The Venus Flytrap is surely the poster child among North Carolina's rare plants: With crimson "mouths" that ensnare insects, it grows naturally only within a 75-mile radius of Wilmington. The state has a surprising number of other rare plants less well known than the Venus Flytrap—rare enough that future generations might not get a chance to observe them in the wild. North Carolina is home to 700 to 900 species of rare plants; the number varies depending on whose list you're consulting. ("Rare" is not always the official term for such plants. Rather, according to the state's Plant Conservation Program, N.C. has 295 species considered endangered or threatened and another 81 thought to be vulnerable.)

Why are so many plants rare? You can divide the reasons into two basic categories: those brought on by man and those owing to non-human factors. Some plants were likely always rare and limited to unique growing conditions. Plants requiring alkaline conditions, for example, will have to look hard for a place to grow in a state dominated by acidic soils. Other plants were more ubiquitous and man's influences, particularly fire suppression, have helped cause their rarity.

Fire is a natural phenomenon. Prior to the arrival of man, lightning fires burned unchecked and not only kept much of North Carolina's vegetation more open than today, but also benefitted countless plants that became accustomed to regular fire. Then Smokey the Bear persuaded us to view fire in a negative way. Today wildlife managers are reviving fire as a management tool—with considerable caution, of course. Aside from the obvious problem of fires getting out of control, residents of neighboring areas may object to smoke for aesthetic and health reasons.

Most of North Carolina's rare plants reside on private property with little legal protection. Nothing in state law prohibits a landowner from deciding that the world really needs another Walmart and then proceeding to bulldoze his rare plants into oblivion.

With loss of habitat ranking as the greatest threat to these plants, agencies such as the Plant Conservation Program try to permanently protect critical areas by offering landowners fair market value for their rare plant sites. The program has the authority to purchase such sites, receiving most of its money through the Natural Heritage Trust Fund, which in turn derives its revenue from fees for personalized license plates and from real estate transfer taxes. (As you'd guess, the latter have fallen off considerably in the last couple of years.)

Funding issues aside, acquiring a site can be difficult since it might consist of several discrete parcels with different owners, and not all landowners are willing to sell. Due to these factors, only 35 rare plant species are currently protected on the state's 18 plant conservation preserves, which cover a mere 12,000 of the state's 30 million acres. More than 300 additional sites have been identified as necessary to adequately protect the remaining unprotected species.

However, the situation might not be as bleak as it appears. Although the Plant Protection Program has primary responsibility, it's not fighting the battle alone, owing to alliances forged with several other agencies and organizations, ranging from The Nature Conservancy to the U.S. Army. Fort Bragg owns one of the most extensive pine forests in the Sandhills and has a large collection of rare plants that are actually encouraged by fires set by military flares and bombs.

Poaching of rare plants receives the most attention in the media, and this can easily be the fate of the really sexy species like flytraps and pitcher plants. Poachers are periodically caught with plants, which are then rescued and ultimately returned to their native habitat. But often the poaching is more subtle: Seed pods are snipped from roadside plants and sold directly or grown into plants for illegal sale. (What actually saves most rare plants from illegal collecting is their anonymity. Despite the rock star looks of some carnivorous species, most rare plants are fairly ordinary looking.)

One non-glamour plant is also subject to poaching: ginseng. This herb's alleged medicinal properties make it a $9 million-a-year commodity, with North Carolina the leading harvester. Notwithstanding, ginseng "is almost like a ball-and-chain around our leg. It drags attention away from some of the things we'd much more importantly be doing," according to Rob Evans, head of the state's Plant Conservation Program.

Another challenge is the Plant Conservation Preservers' No Trespassing policy. Access is by permit only, and unlike state parks or game lands, North Carolina has yet to figure out exactly what a preserve's rules would allow. Evans fears that when some people hear about a rare plant on a preserve, they'll think, "Let's go dig that sucker up!" Nevertheless, that concern has to be balanced with the fact that taxpayers bought that land with their money.

So why are we bothering to worry about these plants, other than that the law says we must? The real lookers of the bunch may attract a few visitors to a rural area and give a little boost to the local economy. Some may possess yet-to-be discovered medicinal properties or play unknown roles in the entire ecosystem. Or does it really boil down to doing the right thing: Enlightened people should not knowingly wipe another species off the face of the planet?

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