Restoration Planned for Green Swamp

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Will Include Some Logging to Recreate the Robust Longleaf Forest of Old

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Yellow Fringeless Orchid, a native to the NC wetlands. It’s hoped the restoration effort will allow plants like these to repopulate the Green Swamp. (Credit: Skip Pudney)

WILMINGTON – The Nature Conservancy is beginning a multi-year project to restore its Green Swamp Preserve in Brunswick County. The end goal is to recreate the robust longleaf forest savannas that existed before Europeans made their mark on the landscape.

“People driving down Highway 211 will likely see activity in the coming years,” said Angie Carl, who is directing the restoration for The Nature Conservancy. “We’ve got more than a decade of research in the swamp to show us what we need to do to restore the forest.”

Originally, the preserve was a mixture of pocosin (Algonquin for swamp on a hill) and longleaf savannas – with widely spaced trees of varying age and an open canopy that allowed sunlight to reach the ground. This ensured that young longleaf and plants such as carnivorous Venus flytraps could thrive.

Longleaf pine forest was once dominant across the southeast – blanketing 90 million acres from North Carolina to Texas. Today it covers less than five million. A combination of factors led to the forest demise, including development and removal of fire from the landscape. In many cases, businesses intent on quick profit replaced longleaf forest with faster growing trees such as the slash pine found in the Green Swamp. Slash pine isn’t native to North Carolina, but it will grow here. Because it grows fast it can be harvested much more quickly than longleaf, which takes a hundred years to mature.

Venus Flytraps in Bloom. (Credit: Skip Pudney)
Venus Flytraps in Bloom. (Credit: Skip Pudney)

Longleaf pine is fire-dependent. Natural fire was a regular part of the landscape – many of the plants that live there need fire to survive. Some species have become endangered as fire was removed from the forest and longleaf dwindled. This list includes the red-cockaded woodpecker, which makes its home almost exclusively in old longleaf pine trees.

Much of the preserve was owned and managed by Federal Paper Board until the company donated it to the Conservancy in 1977. “The company planted slash pine as a source for pulp to make paper,” Carl explains. “We want to remove most of the slash pine and plant longleaf pine trees.”

Carl says that some of the longleaf pine in the preserve was also planted in plantations, which meant it was planted too thickly. “So we are going to thin that longleaf. Right now, we have a big problem because baby longleaf aren’t doing well– simply aren’t getting established. Where we have longleaf, we have single age trees crowded together. That’s not a natural state,” she says. “Natural longleaf forest is composed of different age trees and there are breaks in the canopy to allow sunlight. We’ve been able to restore some of the longleaf through the use of controlled burning, but we need to do a bit more by thinning some of those longleaf.”

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A healthy grove of Longleaf Pine in the Green Swamp. Ideally the whole preserve will look this way upon completion of the restoration. (Credit: Skip Pudney)

For the past decade, the Conservancy has contracted with a researcher who has been studying research plots at the south end of the preserve to determine what works best for longleaf restoration. The preserve has all of the makings of a longleaf forest, including the groundcover that is necessary to move fire through the forest. “Our research has shown that those plants are in the seedbank, just waiting for sunlight to start sprouting,” Carl explains.

The Conservancy consulted with a number of state and federal agencies as it designed the restoration plan, which took four years to develop. Input was gathered from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We wanted to make sure that this restoration was all for the good,” says Carl. “We didn’t want to have any unintended consequences on any of the plants or animals living in the preserve.”

The restoration could take years, because it can only be done in dry times to minimize the effect of heavy equipment on the forest floor. Because the restoration is dependent on weather conditions, the Conservancy doesn’t have a timeline for when it will begin or end. It will not impact the preserve trails.

Any profit from timber sales will go into the preserve forest restoration fund to purchase longleaf seedlings and conduct controlled burns.

The Nature Conservancy in North Carolina has worked for the past 15 years to restore longleaf forest through a combination of acquisition, planting and controlled burning. The Conservancy has purchased nearly a hundred thousand acres that was once longleaf forest, planted nearly a million longleaf seedlings and has been a leader in returning fire to the land.

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