By Daniel White
Drive across Maryland’s Eastern Shore — say, from Washington, D.C., to Rehoboth Beach or Ocean City — and you’re frequently surrounded by trees. You may be tempted into thinking you’re looking at miles and miles of healthy forest.
In reality, though, you may not even be looking at a true forest.
A few miles outside Salisbury, Dave Ray stops his truck along a forest road snaking through The Nature Conservancy’s Nassawango Creek Preserve. Dave, the Maryland/DC Chapter’s conservation forester, and I are joined by ecologist Deborah Landau as we walk into the woods.
We hear wind howling through pines overhead and a faint rumble from heavy machinery in the distance.
Some 13,000 to 30,000 years ago, we’d likely be standing atop a dune and listening for the ocean. While cutting-edge science still doesn’t include time travel, the Conservancy is working to dial back the ecological clock across several thousand acres here at Maryland’s largest private nature preserve.
“Rather than walking through 6,000 acres of pine plantation — rows and rows of one species of tree with greenbrier underneath — I envision in 10 years walking along one of these ancient sand ridges and seeing a savanna-like habitat,” says Deborah.
“We’re just trying to get back to the natural composition of the forest here,” Dave adds. Prior to the relatively recent legacy of timber companies growing loblolly pines in rows like agricultural crops, these dunes would have evolved into undulating grasslands punctuated with mixed pines and oaks.
Houses and roads now sprout from most of the Eastern Shore’s remnant dunes, which were high, percolating grounds well-suited for construction. Nassawango offers the best chance to restore some of this habitat and its rich diversity.
Such restoration, in turn, will help support millions of songbirds that, like beach-goers, also flock to the Eastern Shore to rest and replenish themselves.
This spring, Dave is overseeing a thinning operation on some 150 acres, including roughly 30 acres of ancient dunes. Opening space in the loblolly plantations will encourage more shortleaf and pond/pitch pines, as well as scrub oaks and other drought-tolerant hardwoods. In the next phase, prescribed burns will then stimulate grass and wildflower seeds that can lay dormant in the soil for decades.
“Following fire, we’ll have a much richer understory in here,” says Dave. “And once we get to this desired condition of mixed pine and oak, we can keep it that way with periodic fires and low-intensity forest management.”
In addition to profound ecological benefits, restoration forestry provides work for local loggers and mills. “All of our money is staying local,” Deborah stresses. “It’s nice to know that — through our restoration work and in an ecologically sustainable manner — we can still support this industry that’s been here for generations.”
The smell of Christmas trees fills the air as we approach the rumbling sounds. From the margins of the logging deck, we watch Frankie Eure’s skillful operation of a loader.
Donna, Frankie’s wife and skidder driver, periodically drags in a bundle of pines. Frankie manipulates a grappling hook to lift several trees at a time, efficiently trimming, sorting and loading the trunks onto trucks for delivery to a nearby mill.
The Eures soon break for a quick lunch of tuna and crackers, and after saying grace, chat with us over the hood of their pickup.
“It was just natural to go right into logging,” Frankie says about joining the family business started by his grandfather. His father, Frank, still does most of the cutting for the small company Frankie now runs. And after 16 years in an office, Donna discovered that she much prefers working outdoors.
Frankie notes that the timber industry has evolved dramatically since his grandfather’s day. “Three generations ago we’d never be in stuff like this,” he says. “We just cut big timber and that was basically it.”
Working with the Conservancy also means adopting practices such as power washing equipment to prevent spreading invasive weeds. The cutting itself, far removed from clearcutting an entire area, requires close attention to different management zones, even selecting or leaving individually marked trees.
“It was a little bit of a challenge in the beginning, but after we got into it, it’s a piece of cake now,” says Frankie. He goes on to credit “learning from others” and adapting accordingly as keys both to staying in business in a struggling industry and to personal satisfaction.
“It’s the satisfaction of doing what’s right in the long run,” says Frankie, adding that his seat high up on the loader allows him to appreciate the future forest he sees beginning to take shape. “I feel we do the very best we can do, and I think we’ll be around.”May 15, 2012
Daniel White is a senior writer for the Conservancy based in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a correspondent for Passport to Nature.