SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - In the last week of class for the fall 2017 semester, a dozen Catawba College biology and environment and sustainability majors blew off steam with The LandTrust for Central North Carolina (LTCNC) by helping to restore a sensitive habitat near and dear to most North Carolinians, a longleaf pine savanna.
The state trees, longleaf pines, are best known and most abundant in the rolling Sandhills and flat coastal plain of the state. However, fire dependent longleaf pine communities are now being recognized for their biodiversity value in the eastern portion of the Uwharrie Mountains and the transitional area between the Uwharries and the sugar sand of the N.C. Sandhills.
The LTCNC was recently gifted a beautiful 28-acre tract for conservation and restoration northeast of Star, N.C., in Montgomery County. The restoration project is led by the LTCNC, and supported by partners including Catawba College, N.C. Department of Forestry, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montgomery County Community College, and many other volunteers.
The goal of the LTCNC is to restore longleaf pine communities to this corner of the Piedmont of N.C. where they are not as well-known as parts farther east in the state. Without regular fire, longleaf pine forests transition to a mixed hardwood, oak-hickory forest which is a common forest type in the Piedmont, a dime a dozen as they say.
The donor of the land, Mr. Jerry Saunders, remembered the beautiful open park-like atmosphere of a longleaf pine savanna on his property as a child and his wishes are to return the forest to its previous state. At the Saunders' property, there is further evidence of the almost forgotten longleaf pine community there in the form of longleaf pine turpentine stumps.
Quite sizeable longleaf stumps represent what was left of a once stately and mature longleaf forest and many of the stumps bore characteristic markings called "cat facing" where historically, individuals had cut into the bark to collect long-leaf sap and tar for the waterproofing of wooden ships. That sap, tar, and pitch collected from longleaf pine were major components of the pre and early colonial economy in N.C., called the naval stores industry.
Earlier in the fall, Catawba College students in Dr. Jay Bolin's Field Botany Course and Dr. Luke Dollar's Environmental Field & Skills Laboratory participated in raking duff away from the old turpentine stumps to protect them from the prescribed fire to prepare the site for planting. The goal being to save those old stumps as physical evidence of the naval stores industry in Montgomery County, part of all North Carolinians' natural and historical heritage.
The students also raked leaf litter away from the few skinny and fire-suppressed long leaf pine to avoid damage to their shallow roots in the accumulated duff during the prescribed fire. According to Cody Fulk, Stewardship Director of the LTCNC, "These remaining longleaf pines will develop cones over the next few years as they are freed from hardwood competition and will help to reseed the site in longleaf."
During the last week of November after the prescribed fire to prepare the site for planting, 3,000 Piedmont strain longleaf pine grown by the N.C. Department of Forestry were planted over two days. Each small containerized tree was planted by hand using a tree planting tool called a dibble bar.
"I can't wait to come back and see how big these trees get in a few years," remarked Holly Kuhn, a Catawba College freshman from Willow Spring, N.C., majoring in environment and sustainability.
The site was blackened with ash and a few smoldering stump holes still emitted wisps of smoke as the Catawba College students and other volunteers planted each longleaf pine, gingerly setting them into the ground. At the end of the planting day despite the ashy post-apocalyptic landscape, hundreds of bright green grass-stage longleaf pine stretched out in each direction and offered hope for the future.
Brooke Applebaum, a Catawba biology student from Greensboro, summed up the feeling of accomplishment visible on the volunteers' faces by saying, "It feels great to be out here in the fresh air making a difference."