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Cooper Creek, GA

The Cooper Creek watershed lies in the heart of the north Georgia Mountains. Cut off from the rest of the state by an arc of high mountain ridges and the incised middle reaches of the Toccoa River, which Cooper Creek empties into at just under 2000’ elevation. Despite that isolation, Cooper Creek is a popular recreation destination. Two Forest Service campgrounds attest to the area’s popularity, and the stream’s size and relatively high elevation make it one of the best trout fishing destinations in Georgia.

Forests also lure people out of their way to the Cooper Creek area. A three mile hiking trail winds along the higher elevations of the 1240 acre Cooper Creek Scenic Area, but an unmarked trail leads to the more impressive forests of the “Valley of the Giants”, which Eli Dickerson reported on a few months ago ( ). Outside of that refuge for large hardwoods, it is unclear how much of the scenic area is unlogged, though some groups have claimed nearly the entire scenic area is old-growth.

Dark corridors dominated by eastern hemlock and white pine line Cooper Creek and its largest tributaries, and they contain an abundance of conifers that predate European settlement rarely encountered elsewhere in north Georgia. However, deciduous hardwood forests dominate the bulk of the area. Oaks occupy the overstory in many of those forests, and as a whole the upland forests seem less productive than in many other areas of north Georgia; a list of dozens of botanically rich coves spread across the north Georgia mountains does not mention any from Cooper Creek or the adjacent Toccoa River watershed. Most of the oak forests are not gnarled with age, but they generally lack the old logging roads so common in most of the region’s forests.

For Cooper Creek, like most watersheds in Georgia with abundant white pine, LiDAR data show many 160’+ hits on the steep slopes flanking the main stream. Those hits are scattered; individual tall trees project out of a much lower canopy. Unfortunately, distinguishing between very tall trees and trees of moderate height that lean downhill is difficult. However, unlike most of the other Georgia white pine watersheds, LiDAR also shows a few areas with dense, closed canopy white pine forest on gentler slopes along Cooper Creek. The canopy in these areas does not quite reach the hits of the isolated LiDAR hits, but the canopy structure suggests unusual growing conditions. Just after New Years, I visited three of these sites in hopes that one of them would have impressively tall white pines and that they would all have hardwoods driven to great heights by completion with the tall pines.

The first site was a southwest facing bowl split in half by a low, rounded spur ridge. The bowl spanned from a low point on a major ridge around 2600’ elevation down to Cooper Creek at 2300’. White pine dominated the overstory in most of the area, and formed a dense stand in the middle section of the bowl. Mixed in with them were scattered white oaks on the lower slopes, black oak on the upper slopes, and a few tuliptrees in the wettest areas. At the lower end, the pines gave way to a much shorter canopy of hemlock with a few scattered, emergent, pines. Hemlock also formed the midstory at the lower end, but silverbell, red maple and to a lesser extent tuliptree were more common under the pines higher in the cove. Except for rhododendron near Cooper Creek, the understory was open with scattered silverbells, American holly, and small patches of huckleberry and hazelnut. The forest appears well under 100 years old except for a few remnant white pines at the lower end and a few hardwoods.



The second site lies right behind one of the campgrounds. It resembles the first site in facing southwest and occupying a gentle slope, but it is much more exposed. An ephemeral stream trickles down into the stand from the high, steep slope to the northeast, but the tree tops project above the height of the ridges on either side of the stand. White pine again dominates the overstory, but they are slightly larger than the first stand and mixed with tulipree. Instead of hemlock or rhododendron, American holly and a few hornbeams make up the understory.


The final grove stands on an alluvial flat in a broad bend of Cooper Creek, the only alluvial flat on the lower reaches occupied by mature forest. White pines form a high closed canopy with the tallest tuliptrees reaching only intermediate canopy positions. A midstory of hemlocks await any canopy gaps, but the understory is open except for rhododendrons along the stream. The canopy in the flat is around 100 years old, but scattered older white pines grow on steep slopes and a small flat on the other side of the stream. One small part of the flat near the base of the slope has also been logged in the last couple of decades, and tuliptrees are the primary regeneration.


Ironically, the two shortest trees are state height records. The mockernut hickory and black oak are also top ten in the state, and the southern red oak is the second tallest I know of in the mountains. The white pines appear to have significant potential for continued height gains. Most of the trees in the first stand are only five to seven feet cbh, and appear younger than most tall white pine stands in North Georgia. The third stand is more typically in age, but the crowns remain fairly pointed.


by Jess Riddle
Mon Mar 18, 2013 10:45 pm
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Re: Videos of Old-Growth Oak Forest on Holston Mountain, TN

Interesting details. I've done some hiking and a little bushwhacking on Holston Mountain. Never have been in that specific area, though. When I first started becoming interested in virgin forest, I believed that a hallmark of them was lots of very big trees. It's nice to see someone doing a job of educating the ignorant folk (such as me) that this is not always so.
by jamesrobertsmith
Wed Apr 17, 2013 7:20 pm
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Re: Videos of Old-Growth Oak Forest on Holston Mountain, TN

Hat's off to you, Josh. You're a good man.
by Ranger Dan
Sun May 12, 2013 11:01 am
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Re: Videos of Old-Growth Oak Forest on Holston Mountain, TN

good work Josh. hopefully a "save" that will last.
by Ashe County
Mon Jul 01, 2013 4:04 pm
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Forest treats of smoky mts national park

Attached is a rough draft of what mushrooms I was able to document this season in the park. The cover artwork is by Alexander Viazmensky.
by Devin
Tue Oct 15, 2013 6:49 am
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