25 years of preservation

Published 11:22 pm Friday, November 6, 2009

FRANKLIN-Standing in the midst of recently-sprouted longleaf pines, it is hard to envision Smokey Bear’s message about preventing forest fires.

While stewards and officials of the Blackwater Ecological Preserve in Zuni would never condone tossing a lit cigarette onto the forest floor, they share a different view when it comes to flames. They know that prescribed burns increase light penetration and promote the growth of a wide variety of plants in delicate areas such as this ecological gem.

“Fire is critical in maintaining the structure of these (rare plant) communities,” said Cecil Frost, Ph.D., during the recent celebratory meeting of the 25th Anniversary of the BEP at the Regional Workforce Development Center.

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A guest speaker at the event, co-sponsored by Old Dominion University and Paul D. Camp Community College, Frost is a retired botanist and coordinator for the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Preserve.

The Preserve, a 319-acre property that is part of the Zuni Pine Barrens Natural Area, is home to unique plant communities and some of the rarest plants in the state, most notably the longleaf pine.

The land was donated by Union Camp Corp. in the early 1980s after a copy of Frost’s class report drew the company’s attention to the pine-barren property. At the time, he was working on his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

According to Lytton John Musselman, Ph.D, the Mary Payne Hogan Professor of Botany at Old Dominion University and preserve manager, the longleaf ecosystem “met its demise” by fire suppression and cutting to support the Naval stores industry, where resin was extracted to make products to maintain wooden ships. In addition, feral hogs dined on the seedlings at a rate of a few hundred per day.

His research revealed that there was no mention of the naval industry after the 1840 census, which he said suggested the end of the industry due to the extirpation of the longleaf pines.

“Prior to the longleaf pine, the Navy was dependent upon Sweden for Naval stores,” Lytton said during a presentation.

During the celebratory meeting, participants attended a series of lectures and presentations including “Butterflies of the Preserve” by Ruth Burch and Maryella Mitchell of the Butterfly Society of Virginia, and “The Preserve as an Outdoor Classroom” by Assistant Professor of Biology John Patterson of PDCCC.

Frost, a former student of Lytton’s, and Virginia State Forester Carl Garrison III, were keynote speakers during the evening sessions. Garrison was one of the first to help out on the Preserve, starting the first prescribed burn program and seed collection/production efforts there.

John Bunch of Sedley was one participant who also was at the initial celebration of the Preserve almost a quarter of a century ago.

“It’s been a long time,” he said, clutching a copy of the original plant list from opening day. Musselman was Bunch’s teacher at ODU in 1974.

“If you didn’t like plants, you came out of his class loving it,” he said.

A field trip to the BEP took place the following day, led by Frost and Musselman. Results from prescribed burns were highlighted, and numerous plants were identified.

While ODU owns the preserve, it has been maintained through partnerships with other agencies and organizations, such as International Paper, the Department of Forestry, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, and The Nature Conservancy. Zuni Hunt Club members also act as stewards of the preserve.