Carolina Rain Forest

The landscape and diverse wildlife population in the Blue Ridge Mountains’ temperate rain forest is a photographer’s dream

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Clay Bolt is passionate about nature’s little critters, or the “underdogs,” as he likes to call them. With a wealth of biodiversity in South Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, he doesn’t lack subject matter and finds that macro photography often is the best approach. Above: Trillium just before bloom

South Carolina probably isn’t the first place that jumps to mind when thinking about rain forests around the world. But consider, then, the 80 to 90 inches of rain that falls each year in the mountainous area known as the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment, a total area that ranks second to the Pacific Northwest as far as rainfall in all of the United States goes.

Consider that there are more tree species here than in all of Europe, more moss types than in the state of California and ferns that are only elsewhere found in the Amazon. Then consider that land development, invasive species and other threats may alter the way this land looks and functions over the next 15 years.

Clay Bolt thought about all of this when he started using his camera to do more than just capture these mountains as a nature photographer. He decided to use his pictures to play a role in educating the public about why this region is so ecologically valuable and what challenges it faces, and to drum up support for preservation.

“There was a point when I realized I was profiting off all of these different species and landscapes, and doing nothing to give back,” Bolt recalls. So he called The Nature Conservancy, offering up his services to do whatever the organization wanted in terms of photographing the region for promotional material, educational purposes and other needs.

Wells drilled into a tree by yellow-bellied sapsuckers so they can drink its sap

Inspired by Jim Brandenburg’s Looking for the Summer, which captures the spirit of the northern Minnesota wilderness, Bolt set out to take pictures from a more artistic point of view. He likes to get close. This is partly because the eastern half of the U.S. has a fairly dense landscape, making it difficult to get those spectacular shots of open vistas that permeate the West. So for Bolt, macro was a better way to approach the area photographically. Plus, with more than 300 rare plant and animal species in the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment, there would be no shortage of subject matter.

Rare green salamander

The area, also known as the Blue Wall, is found in the most northwestern corner of the state. This wall of rock drops nearly 2,000 feet from its peak in just under two miles, creating a boundary between the southern Appalachian Mountains and a band of rolling hills known as the Piedmont. This is home to 40 percent of the state’s rare plant and animal species, and supports some of the largest biomass and diversity in the eastern U.S.

Bolt’s work began with capturing the Blue Wall Preserve, one of the first in the state to be managed by The Nature Conservancy. This led him to take on more projects in South Carolina’s mountains, which often are overshadowed by the coastline. Mostly, he shoots properties that are privately owned, giving the public visual access to an ecosystem that in some ways is hidden from view.

“I feel like I have a golden key to some of these places where these rare and endemic species live,” he says. “I get to take these great images and do something for the state of South Carolina.”

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The Blue Wall at sunrise.

With some 859,000 acres stretching across three states (North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia), the Escarpment captures moist warm air coming up from the Gulf of Mexico—the reason for the heavy rainfall. This land remains relatively inexpensive for people looking to build homes, hence the reason it’s so attractive to developers. Population predictions suggest that one million people will move into this region over the next 15 years, and that could cause a lot of strain.

“This fragile ecosystem will be overwhelmed by golf courses,” Bolt says. “People move here wanting to get closer to nature and yet don’t understand why there’s a black bear hanging around their home; it’s because you took away their home.”

Another considerable danger is invasive species. Often introduced for their aesthetic qualities, these are typically nonindigenous plants or animals that damage land and water. Some experts say that only development poses a greater threat to habitat loss. They’re spreading across and infecting the Escarpment at an alarming rate. From a national standpoint, invasive species are estimated to cost $137 billion annually in losses to agriculture, forestry, fisheries and the maintenance of open waterways in the U.S.

For Bolt, his mission is clear. Through photography, he can call attention to such rarities as the green salamander and mountain sweet pitcher plant, and which of the six locations it’s found in worldwide. Four of those happen to be in South Carolina.

Right now, Bolt is busy photographing one of the largest and most biologically rich tracts of land in these mountains. The images he has taken already were used in a proposal that helped secure funds through several organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, South Carolina Conservation Bank and others. The result is that 560 of this parcel’s 2,200 acres are now protected, with work ongoing to preserve the rest.

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A snail crawling on a trillium. Some 300 rare plant and animal species live in the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment. The immediate threats facing this biologically rich area are land development and invasive species.

The photographer also is working on a book that will highlight the efforts of the South Carolina Conservation Bank, which began as a grassroots endeavor to determine what lands in the state are significant and how best to safeguard them. Working with landowners wanting to sell their property for conservation, the Bank has managed to protect more than 134,000 acres. In photographing these areas, Bolt finds that images showing colorful, artistic expressions of animals tend to have the greatest impact.

“From an artistic standpoint, I try to make things that aren’t so cuddly look cuddly, and that’s always a challenge,” says Bolt. “It’s also always a challenge not to get too excited and end up destroying the only population of some rare plant or flower to be found anywhere.”

For more of Clay Bolt’s photography, visit