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Acquisition is Only the Beginning

Fire steward Mike Norris explains the steps involved in returning forests to their natural state

A healthy longleaf pine forest in the Sandhills

Mike Norris loves his job restoring longleaf forest in North Carolina’s sandhills. It is slow work and he will not live to see it in all its glory, but he relishes every minute that he spends on task.

Take a new 400-acre acquisition: “You can’t just say that once a tract is acquired, the work is done. Many times, my work is just beginning,” he explains as he points to the new property, which is chock full of loblolly pine.

The name “loblolly” itself tells you something. In the south, loblolly was once used to describe a mud hole, or mire, or a low wet place. And, that’s exactly where loblolly pines are supposed to grow – low wet places. “This loblolly isn’t supposed to be here,” Norris explains as he stands on dry, high ground. “Fire would have kept loblolly down in the wetlands.”

Reasons for Loblolly’s Proliferation

Fire suppression is one of the reasons that loblolly has crept out of its habitat. Bad forestry practice is another. “Loblolly grows quickly. It doesn’t need a lot of management. You can just walk away and come back in 20 years and harvest,” says Norris.

What grew here originally is longleaf pine – stately trees that take a century to mature. And, it will soon grow here again, because the environment is right. “We look for the understory plants that you find in a longleaf system – the wiregrass, the legumes and some of the other shrubs,” Norris says, as he points to wiregrass that is scattered throughout the newly acquired property. “There’s tons of potential here.”

The Restoration Process

Norris will begin restoring the property to its rightful state this winter. A logging company will remove the loblolly pine, which makes way for longleaf and provides the Conservancy with income it can use to continue to restore longleaf forest. Norris plans to leave pecans and oak trees behind. “We want to leave the good mast producing trees [trees that produce food for wildlife] for the squirrel and deer.”

Come January, Norris will lead the replanting of longleaf seedlings – tiny little things that look like grass  – on the property. Longleaf are slow growing trees. The longleaf stays in its grass stage for a few years. It looks fairly unimpressive during that time, but it is doing a whole lot of growing below ground – putting down a deep taproot.

Next comes the bottlebrush stage, which looks like it sounds – there are no branches extending off the tree – just a single stalk with needles shooting off. This stage can last several years until the tree reaches four to six feet.

The Final Stage of Growth

It will be 30 years before the trees are mature enough to produce cones with fertile seeds. And, it will be a century before the trees are old-growth. At this stage in their lives, they flatten out across the top and are called, appropriately, flattops.

Norris won’t see that end result. But, he knows what it looks like. “I like driving through this part of Fort Bragg,” he says as he makes his way to the newly acquired property. “It lets me know what the sites we are planting now will look like in a hundred years.”

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