Saturday, January 28, 2023

Coastal Land Trust conserves 32-acre wetland ‘gem’ in Rocky Point

The section of wet marl forest is a phenomenon created by a high water table running over flat limestone, resulting in rich soil. (Courtesy Coastal Land Trust)

PENDER COUNTY — A piece of land with exceptional biodiversity was just added to a local organization’s conservation portfolio.

This month North Carolina Land Trust purchased the 32-acre wetland parcel in Rocky Point, near I-40 and N.C. Highway 210 to hold it in permanent conservation. The land lies in Pender County’s larger Rocky Point Marl Forest. The trust posted the boundaries to the site Tuesday morning and described it as a “gem” in the area.

READ MORE: ‘No viable path forward’: The deal to conserve 82 acres on Eagles Island dries up

The site gets the rare “wet” marl forest designation because its high water table runs over lay deposits of limestone.

The Natural Heritage Program of North Carolina has tapped it “exceptionally ecologically significant” and Coastal Land Trust director of land protection Janice Allen said it was one of the highest priority properties for the nonprofit. It purchased the site for $52,000 total from three land owners.

The land was bought with funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided via the American Wetlands Conservation Act. Allen credited Diane Toothman, one of the land owners, and her son, Byron, in particular for working with the trust to conserve the property.

Allen told Port City Daily the site is in the midst of 600 acres of marl forest. A power line clearing runs through the site.

Natural Heritage Program deputy director Misty Buchanan said there was no formal protection of any of the marl forest land until the Coastal Land Trust purchase.

Though there is not an estimate of how much untouched marl forest remains in Rocky Point, it has declined over the years as farming, logging and infrastructure development have expanded.

Allen said the trust would like to conserve more of the forest if possible, but the wet marl’s unique biodiversity and old-growth trees made this acreage a priority.

The nonprofit intends to turn it into a passive nature preserve.

“When we own land as preserves, it’s pretty much just protected,” Allen said. “Sometimes we might have trails on it, sometimes it might be open to the public. This one is small, so it will just be protected through our ownership.”

The site is home to the rare eastern woodrat and canebrake rattlesnake. Neither species is considered endangered internationally, though they are rare in North Carolina and the snake is classified a “species of special concern” by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

It is also unique because it hosts plant species found over a large geographical area: from the Gulf Coast, to the mountainous and Piedmont regions of North Carolina and the native coastal plain flora. It has the northernmost occurrence of nutmeg hickory and is one of two sites in the state with roughleaf dogwood.

David Webster, senior associate dean of UNCW’s College of Arts and Sciences, said he took his ecology students there on field trips.

“Permanently protecting this site ensures that this unique habitat and its assemblage of rare plants and animals will continue to survive,” Webster said in a press release.

The site is also home to several rare moths, a grasshopper and other plants.

The state has been aware of the unique biology in the forest since it was cataloged in 1976, according to Buchanan.

“There is, obviously, an important place in our landscape for the loblolly pine plantations,” she said. “But in a place like this where you still have the original habitat in its pristine condition, we would definitely advocate for keeping it with its current composition of oaks and hickories, and all the endangered plants that occur there.”

Allen said the trust will not perform any management on the land except to remove invasive plant species. Chinese privet and Chinese wisteria are the most common  nuisances to local flora.

“A lot of people plant it,” Allen said. “It looks pretty and smells good, but it will literally strangle a tree. It’s a vine.”

Allen did not have an estimate on how long it would take to remove the invaders but does not expect it to be completed anytime soon. The site’s proximity to the trust’s Wilmington office means staff will work there frequently.

“You have to be very persistent, but the nice thing is it’s not a terrible amount of invasive species out there,” Allen said. “We’ve got a couple other preserves that are also really important and it’s going to be years going after wisteria or whatever else is out there.”

The land trust has nearly 40 conservation projects and purchases on the books. In 2022 it added 78.37 acres to its Sea Gates Woods preserve, bringing the diverse site to 201 acres.

In April, it purchased Hutaff Island, a 2.5-mile beach with 1,000 acres of marsh that makes up the last privately-owned barrier island with no development and in January it purchased 766 acres of forest in Bertie and Hertford Counties. The organization also performed preservation work on its Piney Ridge Nature Preserve in Wilmington.

Editor’s mote: A previous version of this story stated the acreage was near I-140, rather than I-40. Port City Daily regrets this error.


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