Longleaf pine forest showing a seedling in the "bottlebrush" stage of growth.
LONGLEAF PINE A longleaf seeding in the "bottlebrush" stage of growth © Erika Nortemann / The Nature Conservancy

Stories in Virginia

How We Work: Forests

Restoring habitat, protecting clean water and capturing carbon.

Virginia’s forests clean our air and water and help moderate our climate, yet our state is losing hundreds of acres every week. The Nature Conservancy is answering a clear call to action: protect and restore healthy, connected forests on which our lives and livelihoods depend.

TNC’s Bobby Clontz, with shovel, plants longleaf pine seedlings with Virginia Beach parks staff, Lawson/Lake Smith Natural Area, Virginia.
One Seedling at a Time TNC’s Bobby Clontz, with shovel, plants longleaf pine seedlings with Virginia Beach parks staff, Lawson/Lake Smith Natural Area, Virginia. © Daniel White / The Nature Conservancy

Our Once and Future Forest

A new longleaf pine grove at The Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News pays tribute to the shipbuilding history of Hampton Roads.

The museum partnered with TNC and Newport News Shipbuilding to plant the grove’s longleaf seedlings, each of which is named in honor of a vessel commissioned at the shipyard.

The South’s once-vast longleaf forests provided timber to build colonial America, along with tar, pitch and turpentine to construct and maintain vessels throughout the era of wooden sailing ships. Demand for these products—collectively called naval stores—led to the near disappearance of longleaf from almost all of its former range, which stretched from coastal Texas to southeastern Virginia.

The Mariners’ Museum grove and other volunteer plantings at Virginia Beach’s Mount Trashmore Park and Lake Lawson/Lake Smith Natural Area are reconnecting Virginians to our heritage. Visitors to these popular sites also learn about ambitious efforts to restore longleaf that are taking place a short drive away. 

On our Piney Grove Preserve, state lands such as Big Woods and South Quay, and private holdings such as Bill Owen’s Raccoon Creek Pinelands, TNC and our partners are restoring thousands of acres of resilient, fire-adapted longleaf pines. These rich habitats will be a key component of Virginia’s healthy future forests.

Longleaf pine is a fire adapted species.  It depends on fire to reveal bare mineral soil, stimulate seed germination and reduce competition from faster-growing tree species.
Good Fire Longleaf pine is a fire adapted species. It depends on fire to reveal bare mineral soil, stimulate seed germination and reduce competition from faster-growing tree species. © Kyle LaFerriere

Firing up a Fix

Controlled burning remains one of our most effective tools for restoring forests. Fire clears forest undergrowth and breaks up the canopy, encouraging longleaf seeds to germinate and affording young oaks the space and sunlight they need to thrive.

In 2018, our TNC fire team joined with public-land agencies to conduct burns on thousands of acres across the state, including 1,100 acres burned at South Quay Sandhills Natural Area Preserve—a priority site for longleaf restoration—as well as 950 acres at Mare Run on Warm Springs Mountain and 2,260 acres on nearby North Short Mountain.

2018's productive burn season built on the success of past efforts. In 2017, years of extensive restoration and partnership-building culminated in the largest controlled burn ever conducted at Piney Grove Preserve.

Preserve manager Bobby Clontz led a 40-member fire team, coordinating ground efforts with aerial ignition from a helicopter crew. State and federal agencies and young AmeriCorps volunteers worked alongside Conservancy staff to burn 1,830 acres split almost evenly between our preserve and the adjoining Big Woods State Forest.

For this habitat, especially for 177 acres of newly planted longleaf pine, fire is a tonic. By enabling pines to thrive and encouraging native grasses and wildflowers on the forest floor, fire creates the only environment in which Virginia's rarest bird, the red-cockaded woodpecker, can flourish. In short, fire is the key to restoring the rich natural diversity of our Virginia Pinelands.

Burn crew members at Trappers Lodge staging area prepare for the Big Wilson Burn on Warm Springs Mountain in Bath County, Virginia.
Big Wilson Burn Burn crew members at Trappers Lodge staging area prepare for the Big Wilson Burn on Warm Springs Mountain in Bath County, Virginia. © Daniel White/TNC

Learning and Burning

To rejuvenate pine-oak forests in western Virginia, TNC and partners in the Central Appalachians Fire Learning Network have reintroduced fire across thousands of acres on our Warm Springs Mountain Preserve, adjacent George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, and state lands.

The 5,600-acre Big Wilson controlled burn in 2014 was the largest collaborative burn between TNC and the U.S. Forest Service anywhere in the country, and one of the largest controlled burns of a mountainous area east of the Mississippi River.

Years of measuring post-burn effects have helped inform how we light future fires and affirmed a host of positive responses for forest health and diversity, especially from repeat burning.

The forests of the Clinch Valley help filter and protect the last free-flowing tributaries of the Tennessee River system.
Clinch Valley The forests of the Clinch Valley help filter and protect the last free-flowing tributaries of the Tennessee River system. © Jon Golden

Capturing Carbon

Every part of a living tree stores carbon, and forests absorb more atmospheric carbon when they are healthy and growing. 

Through our Conservation Forestry Program in southwestern Virginia, we’re working to change the short-term thinking that has plagued Appalachian forest management for at least a century. Rather than viewing their timber as a piggy bank to be broken in an emergency, landowners have banked 22,000 acres of private forestland with our program, earning annual dividends and helping protect clean water.

As these forests grow, they absorb carbon dioxide like a giant sponge—a service that, under California’s cap-and-trade program, allows polluters to offset their emissions by paying into forestry projects.  In 2014 our Conservation Forestry Program became the first Conservancy project in the nation to earn and sell certified forest-carbon credits under the program. In 2018, we successfully verified 158,905 tons of carbon captured, offsetting emissions from almost 18 million gallons of gasoline.

With California’s legislature extending the program through 2030, market stability will generate increased revenues, which will enable more on-the-ground forest restoration—a big win for climate, habitat and water quality.