Catawba students help preserve long-leaf pine forest

  • Posted: Friday, February 8, 2013 1:14 a.m.
    UPDATED: Friday, February 8, 2013 1:15 a.m.
Catawba students gathered Feb. 1 on the 116-acre Nichols tract in Montgomery County to prepare the area for a controlled burn aimed at protecting long-leaf pines. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jay Bolin and Brian Ethridge
Catawba students gathered Feb. 1 on the 116-acre Nichols tract in Montgomery County to prepare the area for a controlled burn aimed at protecting long-leaf pines. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jay Bolin and Brian Ethridge

Catawba College environmental science and sustainable business students greeted the cold and clear first day of February by assisting the N.C. Zoological Park in management of a significant tract of longleaf pine in the Uwharrie region of northern Montgomery County.

The Nichols Tract, a 116-acre property containing one of the finest examples of a piedmont longleaf pine community in North Carolina, was recently purchased by the N.C. Zoological Park and Salisbury’s LandTrust for Central North Carolina.


The 17 Catawba students who participated in the work day were part of a natural resource management and ecology course taught by Catawba assistant professor of biology Dr. Jay Bolin.  The trip to the Nichols Tract was an opportunity for them to apply what they were learning in the classroom.

“It’s just great to be out here. I could do this all semester,” said Ben Botkins of Denver, a junior majoring in environmental science.

The students were led by the N.C. Zoological Park’s botanist, Nell Allen.  They assisted her team with preparing the magnificent mature longleaf for a prescribed burn scheduled for this winter.

Some of the longleaf pine trees bore historic scars from North Carolina’s famous turpentine industry.  These scars are known as “boxes” from which sap was harvested for the naval stores industry. Students recorded GPS coordinates, size information, and other metrics about each stately tree.

Because fire has been largely suppressed at the Nichols Tract, a serious problem for a fire-adapted tree and community, a very thick layer of duff and bark had accumulated around each “long straw” pine. In addition to preventing seedlings of longleaf from establishing, the thick duff layer can create very intense fire conditions. So Catawba students carefully raked away the surface duff from each trunk to improve chances of survival in future prescribed burns. They also recorded data on the trees.

In all, 88 of the largest trees were measured, GPS-ed, flagged and raked around. After a prescribed fire in the coming month, Bolin’s class intends to return to see the effects of the fire and their efforts.

“In 10 years, I can’t wait to see what this place looks like,” remarked Sydney Byerly of Lexington, a junior environmental science major.

Bolin noted that if the first few prescribed fires at the Nichols Tract are effective, Byerly and other students in the class may not need to wait that long to see the return of an iconic North Carolina forest community.

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