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01.13.17

Outdoor adventurer Steph Jeffries brings the wonder of forests to her students

By Aïda Rogers 

Steph Jeffries exudes fresh air. The admitted “geeky field ecologist” spends as much time as possible outdoors, leading students on summer study trips in the southern Appalachian mountains, researching great hikes for a guidebook, even running in ultramarathons. For Jeffries, ’93 Honors marine science, joy is defined by understanding, appreciating, and conserving the environment—and inspiring others to do the same.

“People say they’ll never take a walk in the woods or see the forest in the same way again,” she says of Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests, the book she wrote with Thomas R. Wentworth, her colleague at North Carolina State University. “What we’re accomplishing with the book is creating ecologically literate citizens.”

A forest ecologist, Jeffries is teaching assistant professor in NC State’s Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources. Every other summer since the early 2000s, she, Wentworth and others have taught about a dozen graduate students and upper level undergrads at the Highlands Biological Station in North Carolina. It’s “sunup to sundown” teaching, with professors and students covering 27 sites in the Smokies and southern Blue Ridge Mountains.

During a particularly violent thunderstorm in the Ellicott Rock Wilderness, where the Carolinas and Georgia meet, Wentworth joked to Jeffries that their adventures were book-worthy. Eventually the pair decided there was a market for a book both new and experienced hikers could consult, one that would teach them how to read the stories in the forested landscape. Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests: An Ecological Guide to 30 Great Hikes in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia was published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2014.

“We never figured out if it was my straw hat or the little surveyor’s notebooks we carried, but people would talk to us wherever we went,” she recalls. “Every time I snapped a photo of a family I asked about their favorite hike, and we got lots of recommendations.”

Trying to figure out which hikes to include and which to leave out was difficult. And sometimes, the leg work itself difficult. In deciding which of the 19 trails in the rugged Linville Gorge to include, Jeffries hiked five—more than 20 miles altogether—in one day. “Then I stumbled into Louise’s Rock House Café, and said ‘what kind of pie do you have? I would like it with ice cream.’” She hiked much of Linville Gorge in three days.

While hiking and studying in the southern Appalachians is fun, there are plenty of serious lessons to learn. In the time she’s been teaching in the southern Appalachians, countless hemlocks and Fraser firs have died, a result of climate change and exotic insects—the hemlock wooly adelgid and balsam wooly adelgid—which were imported with nursery stock in the 1950s. As shady streamside hemlocks disappear, water temperatures rise, threatening brook trout that need cold water to survive. For Jeffries, witnessing the changes is upsetting, perhaps most within Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest with its towering tulip trees, some more than 20 feet in circumference and 400-plus years old.

“It used to be this deep, old-growth hemlock forest for the first part of the hike, and now it’s blazing sunlight,” she says. “The big question is what happens once the hemlocks and Fraser firs are gone. There are seedlings and cones, yes—but can they compete in a warmer climate? The easy part of ecology is concepts, but there are so many factors that complicate the story. The recent wildfires in North Carolina and Tennessee are linked to 2016 being the driest fall on record, yet another symptom of a changing climate.” 

Jeffries, who was Simonson until she married fellow Horseshoe resident adviser Andrew Jeffries in 1995, grew up near the ocean in Little Silver, N.J. Choosing marine science to study was only natural. She was in middle school when her parents took her and her brother on a two-year Intracoastal Waterway sailing expedition. In high school, she volunteered with Clean Ocean Action, an organization that works on marine pollution problems in New York and New Jersey.

Before her senior year at Carolina, Jeffries volunteered as an environmental educator in Chugach National Forest, Alaska, with the Student Conservation Association. It was a leap of faith and a life-changer. “I boarded a plane with 50 bucks and no idea of what I was getting into. Within two weeks I found myself, a marine science major at USC, teaching the public about glaciers and moose. I fell in love with teaching outdoors.”

Marriage moved Jeffries away from the coast, to Greenville and then Raleigh, where her work with a non-profit environmental research institute led to her interest in sustainable forestry. She earned a Ph.D. in forestry at NC State in 2002.  

Not surprisingly, she finds relaxation as a trail runner in forests; she and Andrew (’95 IMBA) own Runnerpeeps, a training program for runners and triathletes. Recently she competed in the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run near their home in Raleigh. “It’s a race for crazy people,” she jokes. “It took me 27 hours and 14 minutes. I didn’t tell my parents until afterwards because I knew they would worry.” 

The Jeffries are passing on their love of the outdoors to their two sons, with Steph claiming “family adventuring” as her favorite thing to do. “At heart I really am a teacher. I love opening people’s eyes to nature and sharing that wonder.”

Last semester Jeffries was brought inside to teach environmental science to 275 freshmen—all in one class—of all majors. Returning to a traditional classroom doesn’t lessen her enthusiasm. “These are future engineers, educators, and business leaders, and this is their chance to really understand environmental issues. How could I not be excited about that?”