Sand and Pines Unending
Mid April, 2011
Photos: Courtesy of Ron Sutherland
Biologist Ron Sutherland (photo left, pictured left to right: Ryan Elting, me and Ron) knows the back roads and fire roads of North Carolina’s Sandhills Gamelands like city folks know their neighborhoods. He has walked and driven thousands of miles through these sandy, rolling hills looking for snakes. On my family’s outing there with him, he casually pointed at a copperhead(Can you find it, pictured right?), as if he’d visited this snake under the charred log many times before. Although the abundance of roads and arrival of fire ants and feral hogs and retirees has diminished its wildness somewhat, the Sandhills is still a good snaky place.
The Sandhills region is about a million acres in size and is a transition between the Southeast Coastal Plain and the Piedmont, an area where sediments from ancient rivers were deposited eons ago and blown into long gentle hills, and extending from Georgia and South Carolina into south-central North Carolina. The Sandhills’ rolling, piney openness has made it all too attractive to developers, and much of it is now occupied by golf courses, retirement communities, and hobby horse farms, sadly.
Sizable chunks remain intact, though, and good groups like The Nature Conservancy (TNC) are working hard to maintain the connections. A formal partnership has emerged to keep big parts of the Sandhills natural, and it includes TNC, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, the Sandhills Area Land Trust, and Fort Bragg environmental specialists, among a total of 18 groups (www.ncscp.org). Yes, once again, the military is critical to conservation success here, as Fort Bragg and smaller military bases have some of the most important wildlife habitat in the region. Indeed, Fort Bragg can boast some of the highest concentrations of red-cockaded woodpeckers in the Southeast. Ron and TNC folks are urging stronger ties to the South Carolina side of the Sandhills, especially to the Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge there.
My father, wife, and step-son, Bob, Denise (pictured left), and Justin, were my support team this week of the trek; so Ron arranged the schedule to be sure that Justin (14) would enjoy some good natural history lessons on his break from school. (Unlike me, Justin knows how to use Facebook, so he can refute on-line anything I get wrong here!) I had pedaled to the Sandhills from Bladen Lakes State Forest. This inner coastal plain state forest is pretty and piney, but managed heavily for pine straw harvest, which depletes soils and understory diversity. While I pedaled northwest to the Sandhills, my family enjoyed a visit to Jones Lake State Park, which they reported as seeming a good mostly natural place, with big, Atlantic white cedars along shorelines. Stepping-stones are in place, then, inland from the coast to the Sandhills, but they are in need of expansion and reconnection. Large forested river bottomlands comprise much of the lower framework on which the Eastern Wildway may be restored in the Southeast, with the upper framework consisting largely of federal and state lands in the mountains.
Back to our Sandhills tour, Ron drove us on the sand back-roads of the Gamelands, stopping at intervals to check on old tins he’d placed out there several years ago during his dissertation research on pine, hognose, and other snakes. The tins (sheets of corrugated metal, which attract snakes by the warmth they provide) weren’t producing much today, but Ron did flush out several skinks and fence lizards. My search images incline more to the flying reptiles, birds, and our furry brethren, fellow mammals. So with help from keen-eyed Justin, I helped us spot a couple red-headed woodpeckers (in decline across much of their range but apparently doing well here) and an accipiter, likely a coopers hawk, swooping over a beaver pond. In that beaver pond, we spotted one then two then three of this keystone species, maker of ponds so rich in frogs, birds, dragonflies, and other noble creatures. Ron said beaver lodges are sometimes good places to find cottonmouth snakes, but this day we were not so fortunate.
After noon, Ron drove us east to a Nature Conservancy preserve, Calloway Forest. The drive was sobering in that the highway was clearly a fracture in the Sandhills landscape, and a new equestrian subdivision had been built since Ron was last there, directly in the path of likely wildlife movement northeast-southwest between Ft. Bragg and the Gamelands. Much of the Southeast is enjoying a bit of a respite from rampant development, due to the slowed economy (though, again, paradoxically, this has also meant less money available for land conservation), but pressures in the Sandhills have eased off only slightly.
Our Nature Conservancy guide was Ryan Elting, a sharp biologist not too many years out of graduate school and already overseeing a major conservation programing the Sandhills. Ryan told us of TNC’s cooperation with the state and military to conserve lands around the Gamelands and on the boundaries of Fort Bragg. He acknowledged that a key connection was lost with that garish subdivision we’d just driven past, and showed us on maps where TNC is focusing resources to maintain biological connectionssouthwest from Fort Bragg and Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve (one of North Carolina’s 18 natural areas in the state park system) through the Gamelands. He and Ron will further collaborate on how to carry the connections southward to Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina.
Ryan gave us a jeep tour of the TNC preserve, showingwhere and how they are restoring a more natural, multi-age longleaf pine community, in an area that had long been managed for timber. Recent prescribed burn areas looked bright lime green in the gray light of a rainy afternoon. After the rain subsided, we walked the Nature trail, finding, among other blooming plants, honey locust, lupine, and dogwoods.
Ron concluded our Sandhills tour with a walk into a rare remnant of old-growth longleaf pine in Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve – a fine example of a place saved by the generosity of a family, the Boyds, whose wildlands philanthropy has given North Carolinians a jewel of a park. Here we saw, in a few hundred acres, longleaf pines like they used to be, across tens of millions of acres. The trees were giant and old, reaching up to 120 feet in height and 400 years in age. May Justin’s generation show the wisdom and restraint that mine has not, and let grand trees like this return throughout a reborn Eastern Wildway!
For the Wild,
Show Us Your Wild Winners
The winner: John (Will) Leonard
The Konza Prairie is located in the Flint Hills region of Kansas and is home to native tallgrass and switchgrasses on its 50,000 square kilometer area. It is home to more than 600 species of fish, reptiles, mammals, and birds. It is a lively, beautiful, and calming environment located just outside of Manhattan, KS.
The runner-up: Kristin Williams
Located at the headwaters of the Peace River in Polk County, Florida, this ecosystem is home to many native fauna and flora. Circle B Reserve is an excellent green space for a family picnic, bike ride, or leisurely stroll. Birds are plentiful, you might also encounter river otters, alligators, snakes, butterflies and so much more.
John Davis on KVNF, NPR CO
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