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Rick Studenmund: At Home in the Sandhills

Conservation Programs Director has restored his own property and tries to live sustainably

Story Highlights
  • Studenmund owns 115 acres in the Sandhills which he has restored with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Safe Harbor Program.
  • He hopes his longleaf pines will eventually host federally endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers.
  • Sustainable, self-sufficient living is very important to both Studenmund and his wife.

NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles about Conservancy staff who are acting on what they learn through work in their home life.

Rick Studenmund walks the walk at work and at home. The Director of Conservation Programs for the North Carolina Chapter is using the knowledge and skills learned through 22 years of work with the Conservancy at his home in the Sandhills.

Six years ago he bought 115 acres in Richmond County near the Sandhills Game Lands and Camp Mackall, where the Army’s Special Forces train. He saw potential in the property – a chance to restore a longleaf pine forest. “Longleaf pine is my favorite ecosystem,” he says as he sits in his backyard, which is bounded by a greenhouse, a garden and a chicken coop. “It is a little bit prickly. It isn’t soft and sweet like the mountains of North Carolina, or gentle and green like Pennsylvania where I was raised. But, it is such an interesting ecosystem, open and park-like when well-managed. Its dependence on fire is one of the things that really interests me.”

When he bought the property, much of it was choked with oak trees and shrubs. “This area had been fire suppressed for many decades,” he says. “I’ve been putting fire back on the land. I burned 60 acres this year. In six years, I’ve seen the forest open up.”

His wife Nancy and some of his five daughters, their spouses and friends form the Studenmund fire crew. They’ve also worked together to plant thousands of longleaf seedlings. “I want to see this place evolve under good stewardship,” he explains.

Seeing Results

That stewardship is paying off. Longleaf are flourishing on the land. Wiregrass, which is another component of the longleaf ecosystem, is sprouting across the landscape.

Studenmund is participating in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Safe Harbor Program, which encourages landowners to restore longleaf pine habitat. The program came about because landowners were concerned that restoring longleaf pine would attract federally endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers to their property and result in additional regulations about what they could do with their property.

But once a landowner is enrolled in the Safe Harbor Program, he can’t be penalized with additional restrictions if the birds come to his property. With the program’s help, Studenmund was eligible for cost-share dollars that allowed him to remove scrub oaks from acres of his property. Without the assistance, Studenmund says it would have taken him “more than a lifetime” to restore the property.

So far, none of the tiny birds are living on Studenmund’s property. “But, they do forage here, and we know that there are some living nearby,” he says. “I’m hoping that someday we’ll have woodpeckers as neighbors.”

Living with a Light Footprint

Studenmund and his wife Nancy try to be as self-sufficient as possible. They live in an 816 square-foot house, which is heated with scrub oaks that he downs on the property. They grow lettuce and other greens in a greenhouse during the cold winter months. In summer, they plant a garden. And, there are the chickens, which keep the Studenmunds and many of his co-workers in fresh free-range eggs.

After living in five states, Puerto Rico and Latin America, Studenmund says his roots are firmly laid down in the Sandhills. “Over the years, I’ve planted lots of fruit trees,” he says, pointing to his backyard peach trees. “But, I’ve always moved before they produced. I’m really looking forward to eating those peaches for a long time. I’m not going to leave here.”

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