Field Notes: Buffer Benefits for River and Trail

By Deya Ramsden, VDOF Middle James River Forest Watershed Project Coordinator

A newly expanded riparian forest buffer in Nelson County is not only protecting the Rockfish River, but also enhancing wildlife habitat and beautifying a local trail.

Last winter, Rockfish Valley Foundation President Peter Agelasto met with Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) staff to discuss improving the Rockfish Valley Trail. His idea was to expand the existing buffer, to better shade the river and protect it from sediment and pollutants, while also diversifying the plant species composition within the buffer. James River Buffer Program Coordinator Deya Ramsden, and area foresters Martha Warring and B.J. Butler, worked together to create a plan that included planting 570 native shrubs and trees, managing invasive species, and recommending future maintenance. The project was funded through the James River Buffer Program, with matching funds from the Virginia Trees for Clean Program.

Conservation Services Incorporated (CSI) was contracted to install and maintain the planting. On March 23, CSI planted seedlings, complete with tree shelters, in a 1 ¾-acre area along the trail. The shrub species were chosen for multiple reasons: flowers that attract pollinators, fruits or seeds for birds, ability to form colonies from the roots and thus discourage invasive species, and ability to thrive in the partial shade of a forest understory. The species planted were buttonbush, hazel-alder, red osier and silky dogwoods, false indigo and southern arrowwood. The tree species selected included persimmon, pawpaw, and red mulberry, which have fruits favored by wildlife (and people); sycamore, river birch, and yellow-poplar, which are fast growing pioneer species that frequently colonize streambanks; redbud, with early spring flowers valued by people and pollinators; and pin oak, a long-lived, slow grower that adapts well to wet conditions.

The shelters, or “tubes,” installed by CSI protect the one-year-old seedlings from trampling, deer browse, and vole damage, and they aid in maintenance. The shelters provide a favorable growing environment, free from wind and drastic temperature changes, giving the seedlings time to focus on getting tall. Shelters are removed once the tree extends three inches out of the top of the tube. VDOF recommends using bird netting to cover the top of tree tubes to prevent songbirds from entering and becoming trapped in the tubes. Tree planters should leave a quarter-sized opening in the net for the tree shoot to emerge and remove the nets when the tree begins emerging from the tube to prevent the stem from becoming entangled as it grows.

Tree shelters protect new seedlings.

CSI will return in late spring to apply herbicide, in order to reduce weed competition around the seedlings and target invasive species along the trail. The first three years is a crucial time period for young seedlings, and maintenance is required to allow seedlings to gain growth and outcompete the weeds. Not many people realize that fescue, the most common pasture grass, is a non-native, aggressive species that competes with seedlings for moisture and nutrients. If grass is not controlled around the seedlings, the buffer may not survive at a level that results in a future forest. During planting, a small area is scalped to remove the grass, but follow-up maintenance with herbicide, mowing or weed-whacking is needed to control grass as the seedlings get established. Foresters will inspect the buffer annually to assess its progress and adjust maintenance requirements over the next three years.

Future plans for the trail include addressing areas where compaction is causing concentrated flow of sediment to reach the river. Several best management practices (BMPs) can mitigate these conditions, including temporarily blocking some access points to give them time to “rest.” In the meantime, consider a visit to the lovely Rockfish Valley, where you can walk the trail and envision those young trees grown into a future forest.

About the James River Buffer Program

The James River Buffer Program began in 2019 and is funded through a grant from the Virginia Environmental Endowment. The program is carried out through partnering organizations, VDOF and the James River Association (JRA), who draw on their expertise and community connections to help landowners install buffers. The program is turn-key, not a cost-share, offering installation of seedlings, materials, and three years of follow-up maintenance and guidance at no cost. This flexible program is open to any landowner in need of a buffer. Through VDOF, rural, residential, commercial, and county or city owned lands are eligible for enrollment, while JRA focuses on rural lands with the highest priority of buffer need. The application process is simple. Learn more and request a consultation, or reach out to your local VDOF forester for more information.

About the Virginia Trees for Clean Water Program (VTCW)

VDOF’s Virginia Trees for Clean Water (VTCW) program is funded by the USDA Forest Service Chesapeake Bay Watershed Forestry Program, Virginia Water Quality Improvement Fund, and Department of Environmental Quality’s Chesapeake Bay Regulatory and Accountability Program. VTCW is designed to improve water quality across the Commonwealth through on-the-ground efforts to plant trees where they are needed most. Goals are to expand tree canopy, positively impact water quality, increase energy conservation practices, advance community health, and grow recreation and educational opportunities. VTCW provides matching funds to the James River Buffer Program for projects that meet the program criteria. In a typical year, the program awards grants of up to $14,000 per proposal, with an aim of a 50/50 match for the project. Contact Lara Johnson for more information.

Field Notes: Restoration Planting at the Mariners’ Museum and Park

By Meghan Mulroy-Goldman, VDOF Community Forester

Photography by Amanda Shields, The Mariners’ Museum and Park

Right in the heart of Newport News, you will soon be able to see a shortleaf pine forest. On a perfectly sunny March day, 700 shortleaf seedlings from the Virginia Department of Forestry’s (VDOF) nursery found a new home at the Mariners’ Museum and Park.

Volunteers planting shortleaf seedlings

With an historic range covering parts of twenty-two states and 282 million acres, shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) is one of four pine species that were once prevalent in the Hampton Roads area. The species was found in a variety of forest types including pure stands, loblolly-shortleaf, and shortleaf pine-oak. However, thanks to fire suppression, land use changes, and a preference for the faster growing loblolly pine, shortleaf is now found in just a fraction of its original range. It is now considered a diminished species throughout much of the Southeast.

The planting project was the result of a partnership developed between VDOF and the Mariners’ Museum and Park that began last year. The park approached VDOF to create an updated management plan for their approximately 300 acres of forested land—a beloved escape from the urban setting of Newport News. While completing the plan, I noted that the park contained stands of pine, mixed pine and hardwood, and mixed hardwood. Interestingly, all four of the native pines – loblolly, shortleaf, Virginia and some young planted longleaf pines – were present. I also found several areas where invasive species had overtaken the native vegetation, as is common in urban parks. One such area had also been damaged during Hurricane Isabelle in 2003 and had a sparse overstory. My advice was to clear the invasive species and do a restoration planting in these areas.

Given the decline of shortleaf pine in Virginia, the park staff chose it as the species to plant. The sparse overstory made the species a good choice for the site. The park received a Virginia Trees for Clean Water Grant to assist with the planting. To prepare the site beforehand, Dave Kennedy and Graham King from the Mariners’ Museum and Park set to work with volunteers, clearing out the Callery pear, Japanese privet, English ivy, and other invasive species.

Invasives were cleared from the understory before planting day

On the day of the planting, volunteers from the Peninsula Master Gardeners and Newport News Master Gardeners, led by Dave Kennedy, Graham King, and Erica Deale from the Mariners’ Museum and Park, worked diligently to get the bareroot seedlings into the ground. VDOF staff Scott Bachman, Kendall Topping, Stephen Jasenak and I all came out to assist with the planting as well.

Who are those masked crusaders? The planting crew, of course!

The VDOF Blackwater team looks forward to seeing the seedlings grow and continuing to build this partnership with the Mariners’ Museum and Park.

Field Notes: Atlantic White-cedar Makes a Comeback?

By Scott Bachman, VDOF Senior Area Forester, Blackwater Work Area

A number of years back, a hurricane made landfall on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and forced her way through the southeastern coastal area of Virginia on the way to dumping flooding rains on the remainder of the Commonwealth. That storm was Isabel. In her wake, she left 32 people dead and more than 1.85 billion dollars in damage.

Directly in the path of the storm were Chesapeake and Suffolk.  In addition to homes and businesses, the forests in these cities were significantly impacted. The forests of the Great Dismal Swamp, historically the last refuge of native Atlantic white-cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) in Virginia, were not spared. 

You can imagine what happens when very soft swamp soils with little mineral content, tall mature timber, and high winds meet. Large swaths of timber were toppled by the force of Isabel’s winds. This “blown down” timber was eventually salvage logged by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the caretakers of the swamp.  In a happy accident, this disturbance resulted in a flush of Atlantic white- cedar regeneration arising from buried seed in the organic soil. 

Atlantic white-cedar seedling (Photo credit: Jen Wright, USFWS)

Atlantic white-cedar to the casual observer (myself included) appears identical to eastern redcedar, a common Virginia native tree. Their forms and shapes are similar, as is their scale-like evergreen foliage. How might you tell them apart, you ask? Their preferred growing sites are anything but similar. Atlantic white-cedar is found naturally on organic soils, which form in places with a high water table, where organic debris like leaves, needles, branches, logs, and even the occasional dead deer do not fully decompose. In a dry upland site, this organic material is mixed with the mineral soil through the action of animals and weathering. In the swamp, however, this “unincorporated” material becomes essentially compost, or peat. It is a productive but very wet soil type, at least during normal times. 

Years after Isabel led to regeneration of white-cedar in the swamp, a drought settled in over southeastern Virginia. Eventually, a thunderstorm brewed over the Great Dismal, and a lightning bolt flashed in a cloud-to-ground strike, hitting the now dry organic soil. It was likely several days before a visible plume of smoke could be seen over the swamp, and a “peat fire” was underway. 

Unfortunately, organic soil is made of carbon, just like coal (which, if given enough time and the proper conditions, this “peat soil” might become). This means that if it catches on fire, like it did during the thunderstorm, it can burn for a very long time. In fact, it tends to burn until most of the organic soil, which may be several feet deep, is consumed. This makes peat fires extremely hard to extinguish. Fire crews from all over the country came to the swamp to battle the fire, but by the time they were able to moisten the organic soil by blocking ditches and pumping water, much of the newly regenerated Atlantic white-cedar had been destroyed. 

Today there are acres of shallow waters and, in some cases, invasive wetland plants like Phragmites australis where the regenerating white-cedar forest once was. Most of the organic soil was destroyed, but in some areas there is enough left to support an Atlantic white-cedar forest. Without a seed source, however, the forest needed the help of scientists and foresters to get started.

Jen Wright, a biologist at the Great Dismal Swamp, and Josh Bennicoff, the Garland Gray Nursery manager, entered into a partnership early in 2020 to grow Atlantic white-cedar seedlings in the VDOF containerized nursery. This was test, as VDOF had not attempted to grow this species before. After securing “pelletized” seeds from the North Carolina Forest Service nursery, Josh was able to plant the very tiny seeds using our pine seed equipment. Had they not been pelletized, Josh would have had to plant thousands of poppy-seed sized seeds by hand! By midsummer this group of test seedlings were well on their way to being ready for planting in their new home. At the end of the growing season, the year-old seedlings were packaged and transported — destined for planting in the burn-scarred area. 

Atlantic white-cedar seedlings bejeweled in dew Photo credit: Scott Bachman

In early December of 2020, volunteers gathered at the Dismal Swamp office on a Saturday morning to take the two thousand or so seedlings out to the planting sites. This wasn’t just any planting though; to get to the sites, the volunteers often had to canoe! The seedlings, though small, will hopefully find the swamp a great home and enhance the efforts to reforest the burned area with Atlantic white-cedar. 

If the plantings are successful and become established, hopefully this partnership between the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and the Virginia Department of Forestry’s Garland Gray Forestry Center will grow and positively improve other habitats on the Refuge. We look forward to following the growth of these seedlings into the future!   


A Christmas Present for Stony Creek

The walking track in Sussex County’s Stony Creek Park is a well-used community resource. Citizens use it for exercise, and for years, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) has used it for firefighter pack tests.

Walking the open track in the summer heat gave Zach Dowling, Senior Area Forester for VDOF’s Waverly work area, an idea. Last summer, Zach mentioned to town council member Mike Moody that shade trees would be a great addition to the park. In addition, planting trees in the park would be the first step in establishing a riparian buffer along Stony Creek, which flows into the Nottoway River.

The town didn’t have the money for trees, but VDOF’s Urban & Community Forestry (U&CF) program offered Water Quality Impact Assessment (WQIA) funds to support the planting project. Zach presented the idea at a town council meeting in August, and the members unanimously approved it.

Lara Johnson, VDOF Urban & Community Forestry Program Manager, came up with a plan for spacing trees through the park surrounding the track. Species were chosen for site suitability, shade potential, and seasonal color. They included willow oak, baldcypress, downy serviceberry, Eastern redbud, sweetbay magnolia, river birch, eastern hophornbeam, and black gum. The grant not only paid for the trees, mulch, stakes, and cages, but also allowed for a contractor to pre-dig the planting holes.

VDOF planters at work

On December 2, a team of local VDOF staff planted 25 balled and burlapped trees purchased from a Richmond nursery. The planting crew consisted of Zach Dowling, Travis Tindell and Austin Babb (Area Foresters), Jim Blackwell and Jay Bassett (Forest Technicians), Lara Johnson, Molly O’Liddy (U&CF Partnership Coordinator), Brian Lacy (Pine Resource Specialist), Jim Schroering (Southern Pine Beetle/Longleaf Pine Coordinator), and Bryant Bays (Eastern Regional Forester).

A cage helps protect a newly planted tree from deer and mowers.

The group planted, mulched, staked, and caged all 25 trees in three hours, creating an early Christmas gift for residents of Stony Creek to appreciate for years to come. Future VDOF pack testers will also breathe a little easier in their shade!

Field Notes: An Oak with Special Roots

by Patti Nylander, Senior Area Forester

Every year the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) puts out the call to citizens across the Commonwealth to collect acorns to be planted at the Augusta Forestry Center (AFC) in Crimora for next year’s seedling crop.  The acorns are prepped for planting through a rigorous process — to separate the good nuts from the bad — that involves a huge fan, a 55-gallon drum of water and a short stay in a cold storage facility. Once the acorns are prepared, they are loaded into a machine and planted in the fall. 

Acorn planting, 2019.

The seedlings are grown, fertilized, weeded and watered all through the summer.  Following some good heavy frosts, the trees are lifted, boxed, shipped, and planted throughout the landscape.  It’s an incredible process, and I have always been fascinated by the amount of work that goes into producing a one-year-old seedling to sell to a landowner or homeowner.  Just about all of the work is still done by hand, from collecting acorns to boxing the trees.  

I try to do my part by bringing acorns that people have collected back to the nursery in Crimora, which is where my office is also located.  I’m always on the lookout for some good “collecting trees” for the nursery staff, too — trees in church yards, playgrounds, city parks, and even homeowners’ yards (with permission).  You can’t imagine how happy a landowner is to learn that someone else will actually come and collect those “pesky walnuts” or “murderous chestnuts” from their yards!  

This year, I came across a special tree — a Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) that was planted as part of a State Lands Project almost 30 years ago.  This oak on the edge of the planting area was loaded with acorns this year!  I decided to come back to this tree and collect my obligatory bucket’s worth of acorns to give to the staff at the nursery.  

This tree is very special because it was “born” at Augusta Forestry Center.  In 1991, this planting project was completed using trees from the VDOF nursery.  Now, almost 30 years later, I am taking the acorns back to the nursery to be planted for next year’s crop.  

Unlike our loblolly pine seedlings, where we know exactly where every seedling comes from in our orchard, the acorns that arrive at the nursery are “wild” collections – they come from all over Virginia and are separated only by species. Therefore, in most cases, we don’t know the parentage of the oak seedlings we sell. (Occasionally, acorns collected from a specific tree, such as the Jamestown cherrybark oak, ARE planted and sold separately because of their desirable parentage.) 

I made my way back to the Northern red oak with my daughter to collect the acorns and was a little disappointed to see that a lot were still up in the tree.  Many had fallen, but the area had been mowed in the last week, so a lot of the nuts we found had been hacked in half.  Nevertheless, we enjoyed a beautiful fall day using our high-tech nut rollers to collect a small number of acorns that will be planted with all of the other Northern red oak acorns this fall.  

Although my acorns will not be set aside and sold as a special tree, and many will end up failing the good nut/bad nut test, they still represent the impact VDOF field staff has in Virginia.  Mark Hollberg was the VDOF area forester who worked in Augusta County before I transferred here 17 years ago.  In fulfilling the expectations of his job, he planted these trees to improve the environment, add scenic beauty and reduce mowing on a State Lands property, as well as to educate people about the benefits of trees.  The acorns that are planted this fall will give rise to oak seedlings that will be planted as part of another project that VDOF will have a hand in coordinating.  

One can hope that in another 29 years, someone in the next generation of VDOF field staff will find themselves under an oak whose roots are known and can be traced back to a seedling planted at our nursery.    

Field Notes: In This Together, Apart

by Sarah Parmelee, Area Forester

Despite a spring shrouded in uncertainty, VDOF forester Sarah Parmalee found hope and normalcy in a very simple forestry task – planting trees with her community, together but apart. Tree planting projects were very different during the 2020 spring planting season, but forestry work must continue to keep our forests, waterways and communities healthy and hopeful. Sarah is thankful for the people and organizations that made sure critical tree planting projects, like riparian buffers, were still completed despite the obstacles we’re collectively facing.

 I have never appreciated how special tree planting was until this spring. As a forester, you have to like planting trees, it just goes without saying. But in a normal year, you’re rushing to help with a planting after visiting a landowner who needs a plan … hoping that it rained enough that you don’t get a fire when the winds pick up in the afternoon … and knowing that you still have to prepare for an outreach event on the weekend. Tree planting becomes one more thing piled on an already-full plate in spring.

Spring is arguably the busiest and often most stressful time of year for foresters in Virginia; it combines prescribed burning season with wildfire season, planting season and Arbor Day. February through April we are hopping, working odd hours (including weekends) and we’re literally (and figuratively) putting out fires.

This year, nothing was normal due to the COVID-19 crisis. With events cancelled and stay-at-home orders in place, our spring schedules looked different.  At first, it was actually nice to miss those pesky meetings we didn’t really want to sit through, but then we started going weeks without seeing our coworkers or being able to meet with forest landowners like we were used to. One of the normal activities that changed dramatically was our riparian buffer planting season.

Saraha Parmalee_Riparian Buffer Planting_Huge Persimmon SeedlngsRiparian buffers are some of the most important forest in our state. “Riparian” evolved from the Latin word “ripa” meaning streambank, so these are trees planted alongside streams. Unlike the hundreds of acres of pine in Southside Virginia, these narrow forests will likely never be harvested; their value is not in board feet but in the water quality and wildlife habitat they protect and provide. As the riparian buffer trees, grow they will intercept ground pollutants (such as fertilizer and nutrients from manure from adjacent fields or residential areas) before they reach the stream and will use them to grow. They will help to stabilize the soil with their roots – minimizing erosion, absorbing runoff and reducing flooding downstream. In addition, the trees and shrubs planted alongside streams provide habitat for many kinds of wildlife including important pollinator species that rely on native plants for their whole life cycle.

All these “ecosystem services” provided by forested buffers are incredibly important, not only for Virginia but also, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and West Virginia because we are all part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, meaning that the rivers from these states collectively feed into the Bay and have the ability to impact the delicate ecology and economies associated with that incredible body of water.

Most of these plantings in my work areas are organized by Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) or nonprofit organizations. The actual planting is carried out by staff with the help of volunteers, such as local school kids and Master Naturalists. These planting initiatives provide opportunities to get folks involved in their local watershed and to help get trees in the ground.

However, again, because of COVID-19 this usual approach went out the window in the first few weeks of March and we had to adjust.

Video Credit: Friends of the Rappahannock

Calling off a forest management practice until next year is not uncommon; things come up. However, the tree seedlings for this year’s plantings had already been purchased from the nurseries and were sitting in our tree coolers. They would only sit so long without rotting. These projects couldn’t wait. So, our natural resources community decided to do what we do best; pull together to get stuff done.

In Fauquier County, John Marshall SWCD set up a sign-up sheet to ensure only a small group of folks was at each planting. We traveled separately and stayed out of each other’s space; fortunately, we were planting the trees 10-12 feet apart so it was easy to socially distance. Friends of the Rappahannock (FOR) and Friends of Goose Creek contributed muscle and morale. Thanks to the efforts of these folks, not a single planting in the John Marshall SWCD area was canceled. Additional tree plantings happened in Rappahannock, Culpeper and Madison counties, orchestrated by the go-getters at FOR. Over in Highland County, VDOF forester Clint Folks and the Mountain Valley Work area helped with similar plantings.

I was able to participate with most of the plantings in my work area. It is very different when you’re used to planting with large groups of teenagers who have boundless amounts of energy to burn. An acre feels a lot bigger when you only have six people to scalp, plant and install protective tubes on 300 trees.

Sarah Parmelee_Riparian Buffer Planting_2020

But It was arguably some of the most fun that a lot of us had in weeks. The spring was shrouded in uncertainty — every trip to the grocery store was like “Mad Max” meets an episode of “Chopped” and there was no end in sight. Planting season this year was different, but it was special. It meant a lot to the folks involved. It was comforting to see that we could still do our jobs; put trees in the ground, make the world better. Because of the folks who came together to make planting season happen, one day there will be a forest where once there was none.

There is an old saying that “the best time to plant a tree if twenty years ago or today”. Trees are hope for the future. We get our seedlings as little brown sticks and we stick them in the ground and hope that when we come back they will be alive. Some of them will be and some of them will not –  that is why we plant more than one. Planting trees is investing the future, whatever future it may be. Whatever happens, the rains will come, roots will grow and leaves will unfurl in the spring.

Thanks for believing in trees. Let’s do it again next year.

Field Notes: What’s in the Woods Today? March 6, 2018

Big Trees and Little Trees

by Area Forester Lisa Deaton

 

oak and house

Lately we have been recertifying trees for the Virginia Big Tree Register.  Trees on this register are checked every ten years to see if they are still alive, and if so, remeasured.  The swamp chestnut oak above is located in Mathews County.  It is 6.5 feet in diameter and 96 feet tall

We have also recently encountered a number of big trees that are not on the register yet.

Wezensky poplar

The yellow-poplar above (also called tulip poplar and tulip tree) is in the middle of a 40 year old pine forest, but within view of the owner’s house.

The same landowner has a tree that he and his granddaughter have named the Rest Stop Tree (below).

Rest Stop Tree

It is a yellow-poplar that fell over sideways early in its life, and the side branches started growing upwards.  The tree serves as a favorite rest stop during family walks.  Trees that are special for any reason can be nominated to the Remarkable Trees of Virginia Project.

Meanwhile, it is reforestation time, and very hardworking crews have arrived in Virginia to plant loblolly and shortleaf pine seedlings in cutovers.

planting crew

These men have traveled from Guatemala and Mexico to work in the southeastern U.S. for planting season.  Each man plants about 3,700 trees per day. lob-seedling.jpg