Native Ecosystem Restoration Expanded in Southeastern Virginia

The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) and the Meadowview Biological Research Station (MBRS) recently acquired land that expands an existing conservation easement on the Joseph Pines Preserve in Sussex County.  The 196-acre purchase by MBRS increases the preserve property to nearly 428 acres. The easement, donated to VDOF by MBRS, includes the entire preserve.

“This partnership exemplifies the positive impact of multiple agencies and nonprofit organizations working together with a shared vision,” said Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring. “As a result of this conservation project we are seeing the restoration of a rare forest community with public access.”

The property, which is open to visitors for low-impact use, is managed to restore a native longleaf pine ecosystem. Longleaf pine’s native range once extended from southeast Virginia to east Texas. Although no natural longleaf pine forests remain in Sussex County, historical forest models indicate that longleaf would have likely been present on the Joseph Pines Preserve landscape. A joint research initiative with the USDA Forest Service in 2018 confirmed the assumption – an old log pulled from wetlands on the property was tested and identified as longleaf pine. 

“Five centuries ago, longleaf pine was arguably the most common tree species in upland southeast Virginia,” said Virginia State Forester Rob Farrell. “VDOF and many of our partners have long recognized the importance of longleaf restoration to environmental and economic health, and we are excited to strengthen our efforts through the expansion of this easement.”

VDOF has held an easement on the preserve’s original 232 acres since 2012. The recent purchase of the additional acreage was made possible by grant funding from the Virginia Land Conservation Fund, the Cameron Foundation, a third anonymous foundation, a loan guarantee from Atlantic Union Bank, and a loan from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund. MBRS’ goal is to expand the preserve to 2,000 acres in Sussex County, by adding property and amending the easement over time.

“Our mission is to put back parts of the system that were lost, to preserve the history, and restore this land as best we can to what we think it was,” said Dr. Phil Sheridan, Director of MBRS. 

With its collective land holdings, MBRS has one of the largest sources of native Virginia longleaf pine seed. MBRS has been a pioneer of longleaf conservation and research and plans to support their conservation efforts by working with VDOF to harvest an existing loblolly pine plantation on the property and convert it to native Virginia longleaf pine. MBRS and VDOF determined that the native longleaf pine genotype is superior for in-state planting because of greater survival, growth, water-use efficiency, and fecundity over other southern seed sources.

“Our organization is a part of the VDOF family. We have a long history of working together with the department, especially on activities to restore longleaf pine. Our work together ultimately culminated with acquiring land to meet our research and preservation goals,” said Dr. Sheridan

Longleaf Pine Ecosystems

Longleaf pine woods at Joseph Pines Preserve. Photo Credit: Meadowview Biological Research Station

Longleaf pine forests are fire-dependent, meaning fire is required for regeneration by preparing an open and clean seedbed. Longleaf ecosystems host a number of other rare species in Virginia, including red-cockaded woodpeckers and two species of pitcher plants. Intensive harvesting and a legacy of fire suppression in the Southeast caused significant decline of the longleaf forests and other fire-dependent species. Joseph Pines Preserve, for example, was likely fire-suppressed for over 100 years. Preserve managers have reintroduced fire to the landscape and will continue work to restore the native ecosystem through the reintroduction of at least 18 rare plant species and three rare animal species.

Some species found in the disappearing longleaf forests were not preserved in seedbanks and have been lost forever. Among them are two pitcher plant species, making them a primary focus for the MBRS. Joseph Pine Preserve hosts six rescued native populations of yellow pitcher plants, five of which have gone extinct in  Virginia. “Preserving this habitat means we’re preventing extinction and conserving biodiversity,” said Dr. Sheridan.

Importance for Forest Conservation

Restoring longleaf pine to the landscape is important for many reasons. In addition to supporting critical habitat, longleaf can be a commercially valuable tree. They contribute to Virginia’s overall forest health because they may be more resistant to pests (like southern pine beetle) than other species of pine, due to inherent characteristics of the tree and the use of fire in longleaf forest management. Longleaf pine forests can also be important sources of fresh water.

Frequent prescribed burning means less thickets and dense foliage, making it easier to walk along the trails. Numerous coveys of native bobwhite quail (another diminished species in Virginia) may startle the unsuspecting hiker. Preserve managers have also heard calls from the rare Bachman’s sparrow on the property. The Preserve also hosts the only known publicly accessible yellow pitcher plant site. 

“Identifying forestland with significant conservation value is an essential part of VDOF’s land conservation programs,” said VDOF Forestland Conservation Specialist Amanda Scheps. “The Joseph Pines Preserve is an outstanding example of land that contains important habitat and supports important research to restore a diminished species.”

About MBRS and Joseph Pines Preserve

Meadowview Biological Research Station is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to preserving and restoring rare wetland plants, habitats, and associated ecosystems on the coastal plain of Maryland and Virginia.  Land acquisition and management is made possible through the generous support of donors, state, federal, and private foundations, and volunteers. To learn more about how you can help, visit: www.pitcherplant.org

The primary purpose of Joseph Pines Preserve is habitat restoration and conservation. Although the property is open to the public for low-impact permitted activities, visitors must submit an access and use permit prior to entering the property; the preserve is closed during deer hunting season. Examples of permitted activities are hiking and birdwatching, while ATV and horseback riding are prohibited to prevent damage or weed introduction that would negatively impact rare plant species, Plant collection is strictly forbidden.

About the Virginia Department of Forestry

The Virginia Department of Forestry protects and develops healthy, sustainable forest resources for Virginians.  With nearly 16 million acres of forestland and more than 108,000 Virginians employed in forestry, forest products and related industries, Virginia forests provide an overall economic output of more than $21 billion annually.  

Headquartered in Charlottesville, the Agency has forestry staff members assigned to every county to provide citizen service and public safety protection across the Commonwealth, which it’s been doing now for more than 100 years. VDOF is an equal opportunity provider.

Contacts

Michelle Stoll, Virginia Department of Forestry, (434) 282-4014, michelle.stoll@dof.virginia.gov
Dr. Phil Sheridan, Meadowview Biological Research Station, (804) 633-4336, meadowview@pitcherplant.org

Featured Image: Native yellow pitcher plant at Joseph Pines Preserve, Photo Credit: Meadowview Biological Research Station

Field Notes: A Crop of Cones

By Jim Schroering, VDOF Longleaf Pine Coordinator, and Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

Fall is harvest time in Virginia – corn, soybeans, apples, cotton, pine cones … Wait, pine cones?

Pine cones, indeed. The 2020 longleaf pine cone crop was harvested at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR) South Quay Sandhills Natural Area Preserve during the week of October 12 and at the Department of Forestry’s New Kent Forestry Center on October 19.

Manij Upadhyay harvesting longleaf cones

Why harvest cones? The seeds inside them are the key to restoring a species that was almost gone from our state. The majestic longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) once dominated a wide swath of land from southeastern Virginia across the Southern states to eastern Texas. The fire-dependent longleaf ecosystem was biologically diverse and provided critical habitat to some plants and animals that are now threatened or endangered.

Crown of longleaf pine
Longleaf pine cone (center) beside smaller loblolly pine cones

In Virginia, more than a million acres of longleaf disappeared over the last few centuries. The reasons were many: pitch extraction for the naval stores industry, timber harvest to fuel construction, conversion of former pinelands to agriculture, and exclusion of fire by a rapidly growing population. At one time, native Virginia longleaf pine was no longer measured in acres, but in numbers of individual trees. Fortunately, the Virginia Longleaf Pine Cooperators Group – including government agencies, universities, and nonprofits – has worked along with private landowners to restore this valuable tree to much of its former range. Today Virginia has 8000 acres of longleaf…and counting.

Young longleaf pines

Longleaf cone production is notoriously inconsistent, and 2020 validated this observation. About 100 trees at South Quay produce cones in a typical year, but 2020 turned out to be anything but typical. Early field predictions for longleaf cone production in the Southeast were described as ‘minimal’, ‘well below normal’ or even ‘non-existent’. While about 75 trees at South Quay were scouted, only 25 trees had enough cones to harvest, producing only five bushels of cones. Another three bushels of longleaf cones were harvested at New Kent. Unfortunately, the low harvest will limit the number of Virginia native longleaf seedlings produced at Garland Gray Nursery next year. (The nursery grows longleaf seedlings from “northern source” trees, because research has shown they possess characteristics that enhance growth and survival in the northern part of the tree’s range.)

Green longleaf cones waiting to dry and open

A special thanks goes out to the following individuals who braved the heat, mosquitoes and heavy brush to help in the collection process: Rebecca Wilson, Longleaf Pine Coordinator, DCR – Natural Heritage Program; Darren Loomis, Southeast Region Steward, DCR – Natural Heritage Program; Jim Schroering – VDOF Longleaf Pine Coordinator; Manij Upadhyay, VDOF Blackwater Area Forester (and fearless cone picker trainee), Jim Blackwell, VDOF Waverly Area Forest Technician, Dennis Gaston, VDOF Eastern State Forests Forester and Ben Duke, VDOF Eastern State Forests Technician.

For more information on the battle to save longleaf pine, read VDOF’s restoration report. Want to be a part of the recovery? If you live in southeastern Virginia and think your land might be a good candidate for growing longleaf, contact your local VDOF office to learn more.

Field Notes: Covey Call in the Big Woods

By Scott Bachman, Senior Area Forester, Blackwater Region

In the pre-dawn hours, Venus and Mars were the brightest objects in the dark sky, save for the crescent moon that, as the old timers might say, was holding water. The occasional satellite could be seen in its telltale unblinking arc streaking across the inky blackness of space. Suddenly, a shooting star blazed west to east before fading out. 

Stephen Jasenak and I were not out in the Big Wood State Forest for a star-gazing morning; no, we were here for a much more terrestrial reason. The State Forest, along with the Big Woods Wildlife Management area and the Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve, are in aggregate one of two focus areas of the Quail Recovery Initiative in Virginia. Since the 1960’s, Virginia’s quail population has declined by an estimated 70 percent. Much of the reason is that modern farming and land-use practices create unfavorable habitat for quail. Forest management is one tool for bringing back these birds across their native range. You can get more information about bobwhites in Virginia here.

Male Northern bobwhite, Colinus virginianus (Photo courtesy of Birdfreak)

Beginning in mid-October and extending into November is the time to arrive in the forest well before dawn to listen for bobwhite covey calls.  The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries) leads this effort in hopes of determining how forest management activities are impacting the recovery of quail populations in the focus area. Each ownership is managed in a slightly different way. This may give quail managers a better understanding of the tool sets to implement on client lands in the Commonwealth.

Marc Puckett, a biologist for the Department of Wildlife Resources and a leader in quail conservation, explained to me that in early mornings throughout the fall birds are trying to join together after being separate “families” during the breeding and rearing seasons. During the winter, quail from multiple families group together, or covey up, in order to conserve warmth as well as better avoid predators. Later in the fall, once the covey has been formed, calling will be reduced. If a covey is broken up by a predator in the night they will call back together in the morning, but if the covey is undisturbed they may be silent for the morning. 

Conducting a Covey Call Survey is a pretty simple process. Surveyors should arrive at the sample point at least one hour before official sunrise, as the “listening period” begins 45 minutes before sunrise. 

For this visit to the forest, 6:30 was the time to begin listening for the distinctive covey call. Twenty minutes later, “Koi-lee” rang out to my west! Moments later another call sounded just south of the first call. Quickly I jotted down the bearing of the calls and the approximate distance from the sample point, along with the time of day, on the data collection map. We strained to hear the next call, but none came before the sun rose above the horizon. At the end of the 45 minute period, we played an electronic recorded call in all four cardinal directions to see if it would stimulate any reluctant birds to answer. Unfortunately, we had no luck that day with the artificial call.  Then it was time to head off for breakfast and the rest of the “real” work for the day. 

This was an excellent result for our first morning out. Like a turkey hunter anticipating that first gobble of the morning, there is an elation from hearing a covey call in your habitat. If you are interested in bobwhite quail numbers on your property, you too can conduct a covey count. On a clear morning with little or no wind, head out to your habitat and listen intently. The call is hard to mistake, especially at that time of the morning in autumn, when most birds aren’t singing, or even awake. When you hear a call, you at least know for certain that quail are using your land. How many are there … well, I’m not sure even Marc can tell you that!

Forestland Transfer Workshops Help Sustain Virginia’s Woodlands

Virginia’s forestland is a valuable asset to society, providing clean air and water, wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities and renewable wood resources for all Virginians.  Because almost two-thirds of Virginia’s woods are owned by private individuals, the decisions they make for their land can have far reaching impacts on the sustainability of Virginia’s forests.

One of the biggest challenges that Virginia’s landowners face is how to pass the family forest on to the next generation.  Landowners often want to preserve their family lands but don’t know how to get started, what their options are, or how to engage the future owners in ownership and management activities.  If these issues concern you, an upcoming workshop may be able to answer some of your questions.

“Focusing on Forest Land Transfer to Generation ‘NEXT’” is being offered at six locations throughout Virginia in July and August. Two 2-day workshops in Abingdon and Lynchburg and four half-day mini-workshops in Alberta, Halifax, Farmville and Surry are planned.  The workshops focus on intergenerational land transfer and will educate landowners on their options for keeping land intact, in forest and in the family. Speakers include legal and financial experts in estate planning, natural resource professionals and experienced landowners.  Attendees will learn about the estate planning process, effective planning tools and family communication strategies, and will be provided resources to help minimize tax burdens and ensure continued management of their land.

The upcoming programs are co-sponsored by Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Virginia Department of Forestry.  Registration information and contact information for the programs can be found at: https://ext.vt.edu/natural-resources/legacy-planning/training.html

—- Calendar Listings —-

Two-Day Family Forestland Shortcourse:  Focusing on Land Transfer to Generation “NEXT.” July 19th from 12:30 P.M. to 5:30 P.M. and July 20th from 9:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.

Abingdon, VA (SW Virginia Higher Education Center)

Registration:  $50.00/individual or for 2 people from the same family; $25 for each additional family member. Contact: Jennifer Gagnon; 540-231-6391 or jgagnon@vt.edu

Two-Day Family Forestland Shortcourse:  Focusing on Land Transfer to Generation “NEXT.” July 27th from 5:30 P.M. to 8:30 P.M. and July 28th from 8:30 A.M. to 3:30 P.M.

Lynchburg, VA (Liberty University Mountain Conference Center)

Registration:  $70.00/individual or for 2 people from the same family; $35 for each additional family member. Contact: Jason Fisher; 434-476-2147 x3389 or jasonf@vt.edu

Half-Day Family Forestland Mini-workshop:  Generation NEXT – Focusing on Families and their Woods, July 24th from 1:00 P.M. to 5:00 P.M.  Alberta, VA (Southside VA Community College)

Registration:  $10.00/individual; $5 for each additional family member. Contact: Jennifer Gagnon; 540-231-6391 or jgagnon@vt.edu

Half- Day Family Forestland Mini-workshop:  Generation NEXT – Focusing on Families and their Woods, August 2nd from 2:30 P.M. to 7:00 P.M.  Halifax, VA (Wedgwood Golf Course)

Registration:  $10.00/individual; $5 for each additional family member. Contact: Jennifer Gagnon; 540-231-6391 or jgagnon@vt.edu

Half- Day Family Forestland Mini-workshop:  Generation NEXT – Focusing on Families and their Woods, August 9th from 1:00 P.M. to 5:00 P.M.  Farmville, VA (Prince Edward Co. Extension Office)

Registration:  $10.00/individual; $5 for each additional family member. Contact: Jennifer Gagnon; 540-231-6391 or jgagnon@vt.edu

Half-Day Family Forestland Mini-workshop:  Generation NEXT – Focusing on Families and their Woods, August 21st from 1:00 P.M. to 5:00 P.M. Surry, VA (Surry Co. Extension Office)

Registration:  $10.00/individual; $5 for each additional family member. Contact: Jennifer Gagnon; 540-231-6391 or jgagnon@vt.edu