I'm embarrassed to say that when I replaced my defunct Gravely with my BCS mower/tiller/garden plow, I also bought the snow blade attachment. I grew up in western Massachusetts, just a snowstorm or two south of Middlebury. Johnny, would you like a second blade for your collection?
On October 12, 2011, the Independent Weekly published Deep Cuts, by Laura Herbst. In the article, Ms. Herbst takes the Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC) to task for some of its past management practices and future plans for various parcels of land that it owns. Although Herbst mentions a number of the positive things TLC does, she stresses the negatives in a way that seems to us to be blown all out of proportion. As a result of this muck-raking journalistic tone, TLC comes across as a thoughtless organization whose sole intent is to profit from clear-cutting land and selling the lumber. The reality is this simply is not true.
In the almost three decades that TLC has been in existence, it has helped to permanently conserve approximately 15,000 acres of land in the Triangle area. It currently owns about 4,000 acres. About 200 of those acres (5%) have been actively managed. According to Kevin Brice, President of TLC, 155 acres were “thinned to foster the growth of unique trees like white pines, 30 acres were restored to native prairie to promote wildlife habitat, and 15 acres were returned to their historical agricultural use according to stipulations of a land donor’s behest.”
In the North Carolina Piedmont, when land that has been cleared for farming (growing crops or pasture) is no longer being used for agricultural purposes, a typical series of vegetation changes tend to occur. The cleared land first grows up in a variety of herbaceous plants (grasses, daisies, and goldenrods, for example). These are often followed by sun-loving ‘pioneer’ trees such as pines and junipers. As these trees mature, they shade out their own seedlings, and other trees that can tolerate shade begin to grow in the forest understory. These trees—oaks, hickories, beeches, and other hardwoods—eventually become the dominant plants in the forest, the ‘climax’ vegetation. This is a broad generalization, and the exact plant succession events may vary from place to place depending on things like proximity to water (streams or swamps), exposure (north-facing or south-facing slopes), or soil type (sand versus clay, for example).
In most cases, short of natural catastrophic events (fires, floods, or hurricanes), these ‘climax’ forests may maintain themselves for centuries. Of course, another disrupter in addition to these natural processes is human activity. Clear-cutting forests for timber sales, raising livestock or vegetables, or building houses, dramatically alter this natural succession. It should be noted that although the North Carolina Piedmont may have once been covered by some forms of ‘climax’ vegetation, those forest were probably managed first by Native Americans and then, more extensively, by people of European ancestry. Photographs of the Piedmont from the 1930s show that huge swaths of land were cleared for agriculture. Much of this land has now been abandoned as farmland and is now either urban or residential, or has returned to forest. There is no primary, old-growth, never-been-cut forest in central North Carolina.
Given these changes made by us, our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, what should we do, as citizens concerned about our environment? We could set aside land and preserve it, untouched, to return to its natural successional changes. This is an ideal to be strived for in some situations, but is often an unattainable goal. For example, a tract of native forest surrounded by human habitations may require some form of fire suppression or controlled fire management.
Although loblolly pines are native to North Carolina, they were never very common or even present in parts of the Piedmont. However, because of their tendency to grow fast and straight, they were planted to replace slower growing species like long leaf pines. Loblollies are a better ‘crop’ for lumbering interests. As a result, there is now a huge bank of loblolly seeds out there, ready to take advantage of any cleared land left idle. So prairie habitat, which used to make up a significant part of Piedmont land area, and which was probably maintained without trees by wild fires (or perhaps fires set by Native Americans), is now a rare find in our area. (Penny’s Bend on the Eno River north of Durham is an example.) To restore this habitat and its native and unusual plants and attendant animals requires management. Without help from humans (or bison that happily eat baby pines), native NC prairie quickly succumbs to loblollies.
The small tracts of prairie that do exist are too small to sustain bison, so if we want to maintain this habitat, or restore it to places where we know it used to be, we have to step in and help it along. This may require prescribed burns or clear-cutting. Some would say, “No.” TLC said, “Yes.” Who is correct? Dense stands of loblollies support certain kinds of birds—Brown-headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers, for example. Prairie supports others—Eastern Meadowlarks, Field Sparrows, and other grassland birds. Should we take sides and support one group of species over another? There are certainly lots of stands of loblollies in our area that were not here 100 years ago. There is very little native prairie that used to be here. TLC chose to side with the prairie. In the process, they clear-cut some trees and sold the lumber. The money earned from this project paid the company that did the work, and extra money went into their general fund to be used for other projects or for acquisition of more land. Is this right or wrong? Ms. Herbst says wrong. Or at least stresses the tree-cutting rather than the prairie restoration. Although New Hope Audubon generally frowns on clear-cutting, there are times when it is an appropriate alternative.
The White Pines Nature Preserve in Chatham County is an example of another conservation issue. White pines are unusual in the Piedmont, though they are very common trees in cooler climates. But the population of white pines in Chatham County is native to our area and is made up of a distinct variety of pines. In parts of that forest, other tree species had begun to move in and were threatening the existence of the pines. If there were extensive stands of white pines in our area, this might not have been of much consequence. But the White Pines Nature Preserve is unique. TLC made the decision to manage the property by thinning out the ‘invading’ tree species and then planting more white pine seedlings. The thinning was done and the lumber was sold. The reseeding has begun, though at a slower pace than some might wish. Ms. Herbst again focused on the tree-cutting and slow re-planting rather than the management of the long- term health of this unique forest.
The preceding examples illustrate the complexities of the decisions that land trust organizations must make. The purist approach might be never to cut down a tree. Never alter a habitat in any way. Always let nature take its course. Another approach might be to micro-manage the land. Intervene in every possible way. We think that the Triangle Land Conservancy has taken a more careful approach. Most of the land they have acquired in the past three decades and most of the land they currently own is being left so that nature may take its course. But some of it (only about 5%) is being managed with specific purposes in mind—forest health, habitat restoration, or a return to historical use as prescribed by the previous owner.
Though we acknowledge that perhaps TLC has made some mistakes (not re-planting as quickly as originally promised, for example), we feel that Ms. Herbst has taken a journalistic approach in her article that goes too far. We feel that the work done by TLC is overwhelmingly positive. If Ms. Herbst’s article causes potential donors to TLC to stop giving, we believe the Triangle area as a whole will be the loser. Tracts of land in areas ripe for the picking for development—forest, farmland, old prairie—may be threatened. The Triangle Land Conservancy needs our support, not Ms. Herbst’s condemnation.
Norman Budnitz, President
New Hope Audubon Society
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