White Pines Restoration Project - Small Cuts, Big Picture
White Pines Nature Preserve has reopened!
At first glance, it seems a contradiction: cutting trees to grow trees, but it makes ecological sense. By creating small gaps in the forest, TLC is preserving rare white pine trees and restoring native forest to a former Chatham county paper plantation.
“When I was working toward my masters in zoology at NCSU, I heard that there was an isolated population of white pines growing in the North Carolina piedmont. I just could not believe it,” says Jesse Perry, retired director of public programs at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. His eyes sparkle and he grins broadly as he recalls, “I jumped in my car and drove to what is now TLC’s White Pines Nature Preserve, and yes, there they were. And so straight! Nothing like a lot of the trees growing up north.”
Perry is not the only person intrigued by white pines living in a little pocket of Chatham County where the Rocky and Deep rivers meet. Researchers from Yale in the 1960s studied the seeds of this isolated, but native, stand of white pine for clues to their survival in such an unusual environment. But what is so special about a pine tree growing in our Piedmont? Turns out, plenty.
If you travel eight miles south of Pittsboro and take a left just after crossing over the Rocky River, you’ll get a surprise as you enter the woods. It’s about ten degrees cooler and you’ll find isolated species, like white pines, that usually grow in the foothills and mountains. It is presumed that these species are the vestiges of the last ice age.
When the climate was colder, the forest of White Pines Nature Preserve was filled with trees like hemlock, fir, and yes, white pine – trees that thrived in colder climates. When temperatures warmed at the end of the last ice age, around 10,000 years ago, this cold-adapted forest retreated from the Piedmont. Only a few of its species survived, in small pockets where the topography and climate created the cool, moist conditions they needed. The steep, north facing slopes of White Pines Nature Preserve and the 100-foot rocky cliffs along the Rocky River have created one of these refuge pockets in which the white pines survived. Perry says, “This is a highly diverse forest with a wealth of species.”
A forest at risk
However, the forest in White Pines Nature Preserve has not always been an oasis. The land had several owners over generations, and has seen portions clear cut to create loblolly pine plantations for lumber and paper. These plantations bear little resemblance to the natural community in which the white pines have thrived for millennia. The forest’s health is suffering from overcrowded plantation loblolly that encourages disease and insect infestations such as the pine bark beetle. The dense canopy of the trees in the plantation, that are all the same age, blocks the necessary light for the white pine, oaks and hickories that once predominated here.
Currently, younger white pines are being threatened by the growing deer population, the competition from invasive species and perhaps a warming planet. Perry, who also owns land adjacent to the 275-acre White Pines Nature Preserve has seen many of his own mature white pines die and the seedlings suppressed by deer.
On a cool day in June, TLC’s land manager, Walt Tysinger, showed off his nifty trick to combat ticks: duct tape wrapped around the wrist, sticky-side out, to snare ticks crawling on clothing. It wasn’t attractive, but it was deeply satisfying to see so many dead ticks. Armed with DIY tick defense, Jesse Perry and other members of TLC’s Stewardship Advisory Council walked the site of a suggested plan to carefully thin a small portion of forest and to make several small openings within it. This would create the right environment for native hardwoods to re-emerge and provide a better place to plant the white pine seedlings. Stewardship Advisory Council member Mike Schafale, an ecologist for the NC Natural Heritage Program, was pleased to see oak-hickory returning to a small site where TLC had thinned the forest before in 2005.
After touring the 65-acre portion of White Pines, known as “Parcel A” the former loblolly pine plantation, the Stewardship Advisory Council recommended that TLC thin the loblolly pines and cut 3-5 small openings in this section, averaging a quarter-acre in size. In these openings and thinned areas, TLC will plant approximately 1900 white pine seedlings, grown from the native white pines in the Preserve. Planting will take place in the winter/spring 2013, the optimal time for planting, and will be protected with deer fencing and a cap that deters deer from eating new buds. TLC staff and volunteers will monitor the saplings over time, clearing away invasive and competing vegetation.
Since this tour, the area has been inventoried and trees have been marked for thinning. The majority of the trees cut will be loblolly pine, with some smaller, softer woods like maple and yellow poplar mixed in. These trees grow easily and aggressively unlike oak and hickory. The thinning will occur in August. The preserve will be closed while the trees are being cut, to avoid potential risks to visitors.
“The loblolly is not naturally part of this forest. It came here when the land was disturbed by man and it is out-competing some species. It’s really important to get as many genetic combinations of white pine in the ground. The more diverse a population is genetically, the stronger it is and the better it can survive challenges like heat, drought and disease,” says Perry.
Clues from past, knowledge for the future
A diverse genetic pool will become more important as the planet warms, and it is possible that the white pines in the Preserve may provide clues for survival. There is indirect evidence that they have become less cold tolerant over time. The Yale study of white pine also had some intriguing findings: these isolated white pines had the longest needles and the most chlorophyll compared to samples from other regions in the nation. They also were the best of any group at carrying on photosynthesis at low light levels.
Jesse Perry says, “We don’t know what we have here. This group has been cut off from its parent population and developed unique characteristics. With further study, we may discover a genetic combination that adapts this isolated population to the on-going changes in climate.”
TLC also plans to plant a portion of the white pine seedlings on conserved property in the mountains as a reserve in case of a catastrophe like a devastating wild fire or severe weather event which eliminates the population in the Preserve. TLC hopes to work with local universities in studying the genetic diversity, heat tolerance and other characteristics which may bear on the long-term survival of these special white pines.
Keep visiting our website through the year to follow White Pines Nature Preserve Restoration!
"I just really love the outdoors. For me, it’s the belief in something bigger than myself and also having the ability to leave a legacy, because this is all we’ve got."