When Keith Douglass signed up as a volunteer with the Conservancy’s Delaware chapter in the spring of 2011, he expected to fulfill duties like maintaining trails and removing non-native, invasive weeds. He had no idea he’d be hitting the history books. But that’s what happened.
“Before European settlement, Delaware’s forests boasted many more species than what we have today,” says John Graham, the Conservancy’s land steward in Delaware. “That’s when forests functioned like a well-oiled machine to clean the water and air, support wildlife, moderate climate and stand up to even the biggest storms.”
According to Graham, Delaware has lost 80 percent of its native forests in the years since European settlement due to human activities that have degraded or destroyed portions of the natural landscape.
“They were cut down, paved over, opened up to non-native species or fragmented into small isolated patches,” adds Graham.
Enter Keith Douglass, who Graham recruited to assist with field work and determining what plants thrived at Delaware’s Pemberton Forest Preserve’s Ponders Tract prior to European settlement. Douglass is pursuing a Master’s degree in an ecological restoration-focused Landscape Architecture program at Temple University. He resides in Lewes, DE and Ambler, PA.
“This was challenging due to a lack of written records and depending on observations made by people who weren’t trained botanists,” says Douglass. He caught a lucky break after his forest ecology professor at Temple, John Monroe, shared a Delaware tree identification book written by Claude E. Phillips, a former University of Delaware professor who collected native specimens over his lifetime.
A visit to Dr. Susan Yost and Dr. Arthur Tucker at the Delaware State University Herbarium, named in honor of Phillips, yielded additional information about the history of Delaware’s forests.
“Keith did an amazing job turning up historical records indicating that pond pine, which grows in and around wooded wetlands, was found throughout lower Delaware. This information and the presence of a few living examples led us to believe that the species was originally found at Ponders,” says Graham.
Douglass’s detective work was complemented by input from the state Natural Heritage Program’s botanist William A. McAvoy and David Ray, the Conservancy’s forester in Maryland. Both noted that shortleaf pine also thrived in the Ponders Tract’s sandy upland soils. The challenge now became one of deciding how to go about restoring both these species to the Ponders Tract.
That's in the works. By the end of 2011, the Conservancy secured 500 shortleaf pine seedlings derived from Delmarva collected seed grown at the John S. Ayton Maryland State Nursery. The Conservancy is also working with the nursery to obtain native seeds from pond pine cones at the Conservancy’s properties in Maryland in hopes of moving those along by 2013 or 2014.
“We would never have made progress like this at the Ponders Tract without a dedicated volunteer like Keith and helpful partners,” says Graham. “This is truly a story of collaboration and an evolution of thought based on one conversation leading to another. It all goes to show that a good forest is only a great volunteer away.”