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Keel Mountain Preserve


This past October, a group of hardy volunteers for The Nature Conservancy of Alabama (TNC-AL) met at the base of Keel Mountain, near Sam Michael's home, to establish a parking area for the new Keel Mountain Preserve. A sign had also been erected on the site for the day's grand opening. After we cleared about a acre grassed parking area, I got the dubious honor of leading the way to Sinking Springs and the Lost Waterfall high up on the mountain.

There is no trail, and that is a problem for first timers or even old mountain goats trying to ply their way up the steep limestone cliffs. Those cliffs are the reason the area has fallen under the protection of TNC, as it is the primary population of a species that is only in Madison County. Morefield's leatherflower (Clematis morefieldii), has only been found on primarily disjunct mountains of the Cumberland Plateau, of which all mountains in Madison County are a part. I know it only exists in Madison County, because I was the field ecologist sent out on the quest to look for it, anywhere and everywhere-here, to the south, and further north in Tennessee, clambering on bluffs that most people would never climb in their lifetimes, while sharing conversation with timber rattlers. This leatherflower loves the openness of the bluffs, because not much can shade them out. Soil is sparse, and so large trees are not a problem for the sun-loving leatherflower, which grows in small pockets of decomposing vegetation between the rocks.

While marking the boundaries of the preserve in October, we found another species of interest there, limerock arrowwood (Viburnum bracteatum) which also likes to hug the limestone outcrops. These unusual species go with an unusual geologic history and Keel Mountain has lots of tales to unfold.

When I first found Morefield's leatherflower on Keel Mountain, I was tracing the steps of the historical landowners with Joette Carter of Gurley up to a spring on Keel. This "Sinking Spring" as it was called, is marked in places by a pipe that still leads up to it as a relic of its importance. It is a "disappearing spring", meaning the water that runs out from it also disappears underground, in this case, about 150 feet downstream, only to emerge as a waterfall in a huge sinkhole which is a couple of hundred yards to the west. The water from the springs was at one time, piped down the mountain and was used as community water in Esslinger Hollow.

Anyway, as our group of volunteers struggled up the bluffs, we edged our way west looking for the old pipeline, following a true north-south alignment. People sure did know how to lay pipe in those days. It is very tedious to find this route up to the springs and the sinkhole, so the Friends of Keel Mountain are working with the Flint River Conservation Association and the Nature Conservancy to find an Eagle Scout candidate that might want to take on the establishment of a real trail up to these two geologic features.

The Friends of Keel Mountain are looking for others who may be interested in this project. The Preserve is going to grow soon because of another land purchase from a local hunter and conservationist to be highlighted in a future article, who is selling his entire 140 acres to the Nature Conservancy. His land stands to protect even more of the leatherflower habitat as well as habitat for the American smoketree or Chittamwood, (Cotinus obovatus). The state champion tree of this species is also on Keel Mountain, as well as other state champions.

Susan Weber


You can read more about the preserve on the Nature Conservancy web site. The Nature Conservancy also has an Alabama-centric web site that has more information and photos on the preserve.
Copyright 2002, Friends of Keel Mountain, All rights Reserved