By Daniel White
Like the trees towering overhead, Brian van Eerden doesn’t seem to mind wet feet. Trees, of course, don’t have actual feet, but bald cypresses are known for their knees, woody formations that spear upward from the muck and dark tannic waters of Southern swamps.
Maneuvering his lanky frame around countless cypress knees and haphazardly fallen logs, Brian wades off into the primordial ooze in search of forest giants. His green shirt quickly fades from sight, as the swamp appears to swallow him whole.
We’ve come here to Virginia’s Isle of Wight County to explore exceedingly rare habitat that The Nature Conservancy has eyed for protection for at least a quarter-century. That span is a mere blip, however, within the lifetime of this wetland forest. Directly across the Blackwater River from where we stand, scientists have found bald cypress trees that exceed 1,000 years in age.
Brian has set off in that direction in hopes of finding one of these forest giants for Andy Thompson, who’s profiling Virginia’s rarest plants and animals for his series in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Michael Lipford, the Conservancy’s Virginia executive director, and Darren Loomis from the Virginia Natural Heritage Program round out our group of explorers.
As we negotiate the swamp’s fringes, the call of a not-quite-right barred owl resonates through the trees: “Woo hoo hoo hooo!” It’s Brian, signaling that he’s found something.
Crabbing our way along half-submerged limbs and over the buttressed base of a tupelo gum, we finally walk out to the end of a log propped up over the swamp like a boardwalk. Brian stands shin deep some 10 yards farther on, touching the shaggy base of an impressive cypress and peering up into the canopy.
Size is an unreliable indicator, but Darren estimates that this particular specimen is likely 500 to 700 years old. I let that sink in for a moment. By the time Captain John Smith and his fellow settlers slogged onto shore at Jamestown, this grizzled old tree already may have stood sentinel over this swamp for centuries.
“It's just good for the soul to see a big tree,” Brian had explained as he waded in, undeterred by the rain-swollen swamp.
Thanks to an exceptional partnership that we’ve been discussing throughout the afternoon, this venerable old tree will live out the rest of its natural life undisturbed, along with the surrounding forest. And more people will have the opportunity to share our awe and wonder.
As director of the Conservancy’s Southern Rivers Program, Brian has spent years working to protect this forest. Those efforts began to come to fruition in 2010, when Isle of Wight County purchased these 2,384 acres across the water from the Conservancy’s Blackwater River Preserve.
“The county’s vision is to make this section of the river accessible to the public,” Brian says. “They have a lot of pride in their natural resources, and they stepped up and made the purchase happen.”
Beyond the recreational benefits, he adds, the project also heads off potential waterfront development that could have diminished these wetlands’ contribution to flood control and water quality. “Downriver you’ve got an intake that supplies water to a lot of people in Hampton Roads,” Brian notes.
No amount of pride and desire, though, would have enabled Isle of Wight to complete this project without partners. Conservation action requires real money, so the Conservancy helped secure a highly competitive federal Forest Legacy grant.
The state provided necessary matching funds and last month acquired a conservation easement enabling Natural Heritage and the Department of Forestry to manage portions of the property. Darren serves as steward of the riverfront section newly christened Blackwater Sandhills Natural Area Preserve.
“To protect special places like this, it’s critical for state funds to be available,” says Michael. “This project shows how the state can make its conservation dollar go a lot further, and that’s the kind of strategic investment that Virginians support today and that future generations will appreciate.”October 03, 2012
Daniel White is a senior writer for the Conservancy based in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a correspondent for Passport to Nature.