Field Notes: Longleaf Pine Planting at Big Woods

By Jim Schroering, VDOF Longleaf Pine/Southern Pine Beetle Coordinator

On a cold but sunny Saturday in December, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) completed a longleaf pine planting project on their Big Woods State Forest (BWSF). Longleaf pine once covered more than 1,000,000 acres in Virginia, but it is now considered a diminished species. Until 25 years ago, only 200 mature longleaf pines were left in southeast Virginia. Longleaf pine now covers approximately 8,000 acres in the state, thanks to VDOF and the Longleaf Cooperators of Virginia, a cooperative group of state, local, and federal agencies, private landowners, and non-governmental organizations.

Planting crew at work

The 41-acre BWSF tract planted on December 19 was originally an industrial loblolly pine plantation. The timber was clearcut earlier in 2020, and the tract was burned in July to prepare the site for planting. Dennis Gaston, VDOF State Forest forester, managed the timber sale, burning, planting contract, and field supervision. Through a generous grant from the Arbor Day Foundation, 23,000 native longleaf pine containerized seedlings grown at VDOF’s Garland Gray Nursery were purchased and planted at BWSF. An experienced planting crew from South Carolina was hired to plant the trees. Dennis Gaston and the crew foreman supervised the planting operation to ensure the trees were planted properly and to the correct spacing.

Newly planted longleaf seedling

Southeastern Virginia is at the northern limit of the native range for longleaf pine. VDOF and the Longleaf Cooperators of Virginia have been working for more than 20 years to reestablish longleaf pine in its native Virginia habitat, thus providing a unique ecological niche which had been functionally eliminated. It is hoped that by adding longleaf pine to this site, both the plant and animal diversity on Big Woods State Forest will increase. An additional benefit will be the reintroduction of fire to the ecosystem in order to properly manage the new stand.

Special thanks for the successful completion of this project go to Jennifer Moon and Bradley Brandt at the Arbor Day Foundation, H and H Forestry, Elder and his seasoned crew of tree planters, the VDOF staff at Garland Gray Nursery, and Dennis Gaston.


Field Notes: Disturbance Ecology in the Swamp

By Scott Bachman, Senior Area Forester, and Meghan Mulroy-Goldman, Community Forester – Blackwater Work Area

Earlier this year, Meghan Mulroy-Goldman and I took the opportunity to travel to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. This swamp once covered more than one million acres in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina and was dominated by tree species like bald cypress, black tupelo, and Atlantic white-cedar. Many species of wildlife roamed the area — even panthers! The swamp has both enchanted and vexed Europeans who have tried to exploit it. George Washington even attempted — and failed— to drain the swamp for conversion to agriculture. Runaway slaves found refuge in the deep interior of the swamp, giving rise to a rather large and thriving community. 

Today, the wildlife refuge protects more than 112,000 acres, home to species like bear, deer, snakes, amphibians, and lots of mosquitos! We visited with Jen Wright, a biologist at the refuge, to talk about the Atlantic white-cedar being grown at VDOF’s Garland Gray Forestry Center for restoration work at the swamp. On our way out the door, she asked if we had seen the path of the early August tornado through the swamp. On August 4, a tornado tore through the town of Courtland in Southampton County, but I had not heard of a tornado on that day in Suffolk. Jen showed us some remote sensing images and told us to take a ride to Lake Drummond and see for ourselves.

Tornado devastation in the swamp

Before working for the Department of Forestry, Meghan studied disturbance ecology at Purdue, so she was eager to take a look at the site. Here, she explains a little of what she studied:

There is an old saying, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” While this phrase is often said in jest, it brings to light an important truth about forests — trees do fall from time to time. They may die from any number of diseases or insect pests, or they may be knocked over by heavy winds. Each time this happens, it creates what forest ecologists call a disturbance. There are fancy science definitions of this term, but disturbances are, in the most basic sense, events that change ecosystems. They come in all shapes and sizes, from a single tree falling and small blow-down events caused by wind storms, to tornados, hurricanes, and crown fires.

The word disturbance, and some of the events that are considered disturbances, might make you think they are a bad thing. In reality, however, they are an important force in forming natural communities across the globe. These include the longleaf pine savannas in the southeastern states, oak-hickory forests of the eastern U.S., and even the redwood forests of California. Every ecosystem has its own disturbance regime, or historical pattern of disturbances. These patterns influence the plant species that are present in an area. To understand why, we have to talk about another important ecology concept: succession.

Succession is the continual changing of species that make up a community over time. Some species, called early-successional species, come in soon after a disturbance. They like a lot of sunlight and can often deal with some pretty tough ecological conditions. As time passes, the early-successional species pave the way for species that may tolerate a bit more shade. We call these mid-successional species. Finally, some species that don’t require much sunlight at all — the late-successional species — start to grow under the shade of those mid-successional species that are still alive. This process occurs every time there is a disturbance from large disturbances like fires, to small disturbances like a single tree falling. You can see a quick overview of succession here. (The secondary succession portion of the video applies to the situation we observed after the tornado.)

What’s more, this process also helps to increase diversity. As conditions change over time, the different successional species overlap, increasing the overall number of species in an area. Disturbances also create diversity by creating patches that are in different stages of succession. This is what happens if a single tree falls. The gap it creates might not be too big, but that gap allows for more sunlight to reach the forest floor, and for different species to grow in its place.

This is a perfect description of what Meghan and I saw on that afternoon in the Dismal Swamp.  The species that had made up much of the overstory — red maple, tupelo gum, green ash and a few baldcypress — had been toppled, even twisted. The site looked utterly devastated. But when we looked a little closer, we could see that under the tattered boles of mature trees were green shoots. Many of these were baldcypress saplings, less than three feet tall for the most part. Baldcypress is a relatively shade-tolerant tree when young and can persist in the understory for many years until there is a disturbance. Now was their chance! The heavy shade from the overstory was gone, and sunlight was there to be had for the quickest to reach for the sky. 

Green shoots amid fallen trees

It will be interesting to see what this disturbed forest looks like 5, 10, or even 30 years from now. I am sure it will be easy to pick out the path of this tornado for a long while in the future by the change in the vegetation.

Incidentally, swamp forests like the one we visited in the Great Dismal Swamp are globally rare. For more information about this forest type, check out this information from the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Division.

Fourth Edition of the Virginia Tree Steward Manual Now Available

The Virginia Department of Forestry, Virginia Tech, and Trees Virginia are excited to announce the release of the newest edition of the Virginia Tree Steward Manual! The manual is available to view and download on the Trees Virginia website:

This manual serves as the main resource for Tree Steward groups working across the state. It was last updated in 2009, and a lot of the materials were outdated. The group needed a new, updated resource for training volunteers to care for their community forests. Updates includes high-quality images and graphics, additional sections, and featured stories from Tree Stewards across the state.

Lara Johnson has been looking forward to an updated manual since she first took her position as VDOF’s urban & community forestry program manager two years ago. She is especially excited to share this new resource to support the volunteers who perform critical community forestry work throughout Virginia.

Funding for the revision was provided by Trees Virginia, Virginia Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service Urban and Community Forestry Program.

Photo: Arlington/Alexandra Tree Stewards

Holiday Special Delivery

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

Early Tuesday morning, a team of foresters gathered at Claybrooke Farm near Mineral to collect a special gift – the 2020 State Capitol Christmas tree.

The approximately 25-foot Norway spruce donated by the Carroll family will be displayed outside on the Capitol portico. This year’s tree lighting ceremony was closed to the public due to COVID concerns, but you can view the tree from a distance throughout the holiday season.

The Capitol tree is lowered into place.

VDOF’s Jefferson work team members Michael Downey, Jonah Fielding, and David Powell, along with State Forester Rob Farrell, assisted with felling, loading, and transporting the tree to Richmond.

Locating and delivering the Capitol tree is an annual event for VDOF. About this time of year, many of us who work in the forestry field hear the question, “Isn’t it wasteful to cut down a tree just for Christmas?” The short answer is, “No!” The longer answer highlights the advantages of using real trees.

Detail of the spruce

Christmas trees are a crop, just like corn or soybeans. Christmas tree growers simply harvest their crop less often – every 7 years, on average. While the trees are growing, they are sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, and they store that carbon until they biodegrade – a nice benefit for a warming planet.

Christmas trees are a renewable resource. Tree farmers plant new trees to replace those that are cut – 2 to 3 trees for every one harvested, according to the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association.

Christmas trees are also recyclable. Many localities chip the trees into mulch, to use in city landscaping or give away to citizens. Trees can be used to start brush piles for wildlife, or sunk in ponds to provide fish habitat. In some areas, recycled Christmas trees have stabilized stream banks or provided a foundation for new sand dunes along the coast.

By buying a locally grown tree, you support Virginia agriculture and your local economy. To help you find one, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services maintains a list of Virginia Christmas tree growers. Another option for a real tree is to use all or part of an evergreen from your yard that needs to come down. Planning ahead may even allow you to donate your tree to a local organization or municipality.

CBS19 shared a story about the tree harvest and the lighting ceremony that took place on December 2. Be sure to check out the Capitol tree if you’re in Richmond this month — and, check out one of Virginia’s farms for a tree of your own!