The long-term vision to restore Virginia’s native longleaf pine — and the natural communities associated with it — is closer to being realized with the protection of 2,855 acres in Suffolk, Va.
The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation purchased the tract known as South Quay in late December from International Paper. The land is an addition to the 287-acre South Quay Sandhills Natural Area Preserve along the Blackwater River, near the North Carolina border. Managed by DCR, natural area preserves permanently protect significant natural communities and the species they support.
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South Quay (pronounced “key”) contains the last-remaining longleaf pine sandhill community in Virginia. Longleaf pine forests once covered more than 1 million acres in southeast Virginia but have declined since Colonial times. Today, about 120 individual mature trees remain.
“Longleaf pine was once a dominant part of our landscape and integral to the lives of generations of Virginians,” said DCR Director David A. Johnson. “In fact, a personal treasure of mine is one of the many small boxes my grandmother handcrafted from longleaf pine needles. To see this special place protected is a landmark moment for all Virginians.”
The property has long contributed to the region’s rich manufacturing history.
“For more than a century, International Paper has acted as a steward of the land, and we are pleased to be part of another conservation effort in Virginia,” said Teri Shanahan, vice president of sustainability at International Paper. “Since 2005, the company has helped to safeguard more than 1.5 million acres through donations, easements and sales. Beyond conservation efforts, our business is a critical economic driver that allows millions of acres of forest to continue to exist for many, many decades.”
General obligation bonds from 2002 and a grant from the U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program funded the purchase. The purpose of the Forest Legacy Program is to protect environmentally important forests from being converted to non-forest use. The Virginia Department of Forestry manages the grant program in Virginia.
DCR and DOF, with permission from International Paper, have partnered for the last six years to collect longleaf pine seed from the site and produce seedlings for longleaf restoration efforts in Virginia.
“The Legacy Program provided the funds for the portion of the tract that contains the last remaining significant site of seed-producing longleaf pines in Virginia,” said State Forester Carl Garrison. “Without this seed source, it would be almost impossible for us to restore this once plentiful forest resource in the commonwealth.”
About 100 acres at South Quay still support mature longleaf pines that are suitable for seed production. Plans for the preserve include re-establishment of the trees on about 1,500 acres. DCR will partner with The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others to implement a prescribed-fire plan. Longleaf pine and many of the rare plants found at the site depend on fire for survival.
“South Quay supports one of Virginia’s highest concentrations of exemplary natural communities and rare species east of the Blue Ridge Mountains,” said DCR Natural Heritage Director Tom Smith. “South Quay has been on the Natural Heritage Program’s radar screen since the late 1980s, and its protection is a major celebration point in Virginia’s land conservation history.”
The preserve is a cornerstone of a larger effort to conserve iconic, ecologically important blocks of forest in the Chowan River Basin. Much of the well-drained sandhills habitat extending from the preserve into North Carolina has been conserved, as have the deep cypress and tupelo swamp forests along the Blackwater and Chowan rivers.
“Protection of the South Quay tract is a big piece in a large-scale conservation project spanning 20,000 acres and 20 miles of river frontage,” said Michael Lipford, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Virginia. “This is a historic moment for longleaf pine restoration.”
Longleaf pine is native to the southeast United States. Colonists in Virginia valued its strong, straight-grained wood and especially its high yield of “naval stores” — pitch and tar critical for early shipbuilding. Collection of naval stores was a highly destructive practice that, along with land clearing for agriculture, introduction of seedling-eating feral pigs and exclusion of fire, led to the near loss of longleaf from Virginia by 1850. What little longleaf pine forest remained in Virginia during the 1900s was largely replaced with other pine species or converted to non-forest uses.
The community of South Quay was founded in 1657 with an international customs house in full operation by 1776. “Quay” refers to a structure built parallel to the bank of a waterway for use as a landing place. The community and landing were burned by the British in 1781.
The Virginia Natural Area Preserve System consists of 61 properties and 54,803 acres across the state. Natural area preserves support 743 exemplary natural communities and rare plant and animal species representing some of the best Virginia and the world have to offer in biological diversity and scenic beauty.
South Quay Sandhills Natural Area Preserve does not have public access facilities. However, 20 natural area preserves across the state have parking areas and trails that offer public access for passive recreation such as hiking, birding and nature photography.
For information about the Virginia Natural Area Preserve System, go to: http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural_heritage/natural_area_preserves/index.shtml
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.