On a wet Saturday morning Jessica and Diane Anton and Keith Douglass follow Conservancy’s land steward John Graham as he explains the proper planting techniques for shortleaf pine.
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Far back in the 1760s, when the town of Milton, Delaware was first established as a shipbuilding and grain milling center, the nearby Ponders Tract surely would have been dominated by a mixed hardwood and pine forest community. It had freshwater wetlands dominated by Atlantic White Cedar, a species now sadly gone from much of its original home range. These original forests were cleared for shipbuilding and timber, and then the land was used for farmland.
The 908-acre Ponders Tract site was used by a lumber company for loblolly pine timber production until it was purchased by The Nature Conservancy in 2004; now it has nearly 10 miles of hiking trails and still has stands of relatively unspoiled hardwood forest, as well as several high quality examples of coastal plain freshwater wetlands.
“For habitat restoration practitioners interested in bringing back pre-colonial forests, our first steps found us acting more like detectives than field ecologists,” said John Graham, the Delaware Chapter’s Land Steward. “Few accounts exist today that document original forest conditions, but with some collective research, we found important clues.” Graham is an Entomology and Wildlife Ecology graduate of the University of Delaware’s Department of Agriculture. He has more than 30 years of experience in landscape construction, freshwater wetland habitat restoration and reforestation.
“Early this winter we began the research phase of our work,” said Graham. “After several unproductive starts, Keith Douglass, a dedicated volunteer, ultimately discovered historical records that mentioned shortleaf pine as one of the species that was present at Ponders prior to the original clearing of the forest. Then, in working with our state Natural Heritage Program, we discovered more evidence supporting the presence of shortleaf pine at Ponders.”
Graham then met with David Ray, The Nature Conservancy in Maryland’s conservation forester for this region; leading him to an established shortleaf pine site to examine field conditions to “get a feel” for what a shortleaf pine stand should look like in a natural setting. Graham became convinced that restoration would work in Delaware after Bill McAvoy, Delaware’s state botanist with the Natural Heritage Program, showed him the “Red House” site near Laurel where the shortleaf pine was growing.
This winter, Graham and Ryan Goetz, an intern from the Student Conservation Association, opened up sites for the replanting of shortleaf pine by cutting down lots of young loblolly pine trees. Yesterday the planting began.
While this first planting this weekend was small – 500 seedlings provided by David Ray were planted by University of Delaware students from Kent Messer’s Sustainable Development course – the Conservancy expects to learn much about successfully reestablishing shortleaf pine into its historical range.
UD students not only helped plant the seedlings, but had the opportunity to talk to experts about the planning to install the shortleaf pine on the site, providing a symbiotic exchange of good work done and an educational experience for students interested in field restoration work and career possibilities.
"It was a great experience for someone who is not a Conservation Science major,” Tony Robinson, a freshman communications major at the University of Delaware and a William Penn High School graduate.
Jessica Anton, also a UD freshman, along with her mother, Diane, a nurse, found the work in the outdoors rejuvenating. “It makes me realize that I don’t want (a career) where I sit in an office all day."
Both students said they are interested in learning more about The Nature Conservancy’s summer internship programs.
This work has been part of an ongoing process by The Nature Conservancy. By using a mix of state-of-the art timber thinning and old-fashioned manual labor, the Conservancy has transformed 240 acres of the loblolly pine plantation into a native coastal forest of oak, hickory, tulip poplar, sassafras, red maple and other hardwoods.
Graham says this is a great time of the year to take in this dynamic landscape. “It’s a wonderful place to come, particularly in the spring for viewing migratory neo-tropical songbirds,” said Graham.
A trail head kiosk, directional and interpretive signage and benches have been installed, largely due to the efforts of volunteers, along the trail, which is closed to public visitation from August 15 to February 15 when the exploding deer population is kept under control.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.