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Protecting Mountain Flora

With the Blue Ridge Parkway as his office, Chris Ulrey ’98 MS, ’02 PHD helps preserve endangered plants.

Photograph by Mike Belleme.

By Sarah Wade

Every July, Chris Ulrey ’98 MS, ’02 PHD rappels down cliffs in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee to look for the delicate yellow blooms of spreading avens. The endangered herb is known to grow in just 14 high-elevation locations worldwide — three of them in the Blue Ridge Parkway. For 20 years, Ulrey, the park’s plant ecologist, has been collecting data on the spreading avens.

It’s one of an array of flowers, trees and other plants Ulrey is responsible for tending to within the Parkway’s 90,000 acres. “One day, I’ll be working to protect a rare, fragile plant to try to keep it alive, and then the next day, I’ll be out with the same kind of vigor trying to get rid of a plant that shouldn’t be there,” he says. He sometimes spends hours hacking at Oriental bittersweet, an invasive vine, and applying herbicide to the stumps to keep it from spreading.

Ulrey grew up surrounded by plants at his parents’ landscaping and nursery business in Weaverville, N.C. He followed in their footsteps, studying horticulture and working for a nursery in South Carolina. But an interest in native plants led him back to school for botany, and later a job with the U.S. Forest Service, before he joined the Parkway in 1999. “I’m very fortunate that I’m able to still work in the mountains I love so much,” he says.

“More people come on the Parkway than any other national park, so we have an opportunity to educate a lot of people.” ­­– Chris Ulrey ’98 MS, ’02 PHD

Today, the ecologist is raising awareness about the impacts climate change could have on the Parkway. For instance, the research Ulrey and colleagues have conducted suggests that the spreading avens could lose half of its habitat by 2050 because of climate change. It’s become a key example in his conversations with visitors. “More people come on the Parkway than any other national park,” he says, “so we have an opportunity to educate a lot of people.”

Some of his most rewarding moments on the job have come from mentoring interns, technicians and volunteers at the Parkway. That, and watching springtime unfold. “I still get excited every spring when the spring flora come up — all the trilliums and the orchids,” he says. 

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