Healing a Rowan County ecosystem

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 22, 2012

By John Isenhour
N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission
Neighbors who hung around with George Everhart in high school knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up: a doctor. So it was no surprise when he entered Bowman Gray School of Medicine in 1973. This Rowan County native has long been a healer, opening his first practice, Rowan Family Physicians, in 1980. For 25 years, Everhart cared for friends, neighbors and strangers alike, improving many lives in the Rowan County area.
Medicine has long been a passion of Everhart’s, but in his retirement, another longtime interest has come front and center: the outdoors. Knowledge, respect and enjoyment of the natural world has been embedded in Everhart since he started fishing and hunting with his grandfather, father and uncles at the age of 6. His love for the outdoors continued to be honed as a Boy Scout at Central United Methodist Church of Spencer Troop 349.
The Everharts have long been known in the area as a rabbit hunting family. This tradition continues even today as Everhart and his uncle Howard take to the field every chance they get. On several occasions I have called Everhart in January and February only to have the conversation interrupted by pack of beagles “burning up a cottontail.”
Over the last three years his passions have merged. Everhart has undertaken a unique land management project on property he owns in eastern Rowan County. He has begun to heal a declining ecosystem, the Gold Hill Flatwoods. This ecosystem is characterized as having low fertility shallow soils often referred to as “bull tallow.” These soils shrink and swell depending on moisture content, often forming upland depression pools. Their low permeability reduces opportunity for development using traditional septic systems. In recent years, much of the Flatwoods acreage in Cabarrus and Rowan counties has been converted into intensively managed loblolly pine plantations. Very few acres have been managed to promote plant and wildlife diversity.
Improving the habitat
As with any specialized medical condition, finding the right team to help diagnosis and treat the problem is vital for recovery. To improve wildlife habitat and increase recreational opportunities for himself and his family, Everhart sought assistance from several agencies which specialize in managing natural resources. The key agencies were the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Natural Resources Conservation Service and the North Carolina Forest Service. The goal for these agencies was to develop a plan which met Everhart’s objectives.
After looking at the site, researching existing vegetation and discussing management practice options, it was decided that a savanna would best fit these objectives. Savannas once covered a large portion of North Carolinas Piedmont region. In fact early maps of North Carolina often mention these low density forests with native grasses, shrubs, legumes and forbs (a broad-leafed herb other than grass) in the understory. Savannas were maintained by frequent fires set by native Americans or started by natural means.
Converting into a savanna
A 52-acre section of forestland was selected to convert into a savanna habitat type. A previous owner had clear-cut this stand about 30 years ago then walked away, allowing a mixed forest with shortleaf pine, white oak, post oak, willow oak and various other hardwood species to regrow. In addition to tree species, native grasses, blueberry and huckleberries were also identified in this stand, a perfect mix to develop a savanna.
The mixture of vegetation in a savanna habitat benefits many species of wildlife: Native grasses serve as nesting cover for ground nesting birds; forbs such as ragweed and pokeberry provide high protein browse for deer and other plant-eating species; oaks, blueberry and blackgum trees produce mast throughout the year; grasshoppers and other insects living in the savanna are an integral protein source for birds, especially young turkey poults.
The treatment began in the fall of 2010 with a commercial timber harvest. Much as a surgeon removes diseased and damaged tissue, a feller buncher was used to cut low quality trees, piling them up to be moved with a skidder. The skidder pulled the harvested trees to a deck where they were sorted based on size and species. The larger trees were hauled to a mill for pulp and engineered wood products. Smaller trees were chipped on site for use as boiler fuel. This type of harvest allowed small trees to be used, which greatly reduced logging residue.
After the timber harvest, the savanna was allowed to grow for a year. During this time native grasses showed up where they had been suppressed by shade for years and hardwood stumps began to resprout. A botanist from the North Carolina Zoo surveyed the savanna and developed a list of plant species. During this time, Everhart allowed the first tour of his property. This tour served as a plant identification training for staff from the North Carolina Wildlife Commission, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the LandTrust for Central North Carolina and the North Carolina Zoo. More than 170 plant species have been identified on the 52-acre project area. This number is pretty amazing, especially when you consider that only 15 of these plants are not native. At least one species was not known to occur in Rowan County. Until identified on the savanna, it was thought of as a coastal plain species with the closest documented occurrence in southern Anson County.
Prescribed burn
Since this initial inventory, the NC Forest Service conducted a prescribed burn on the savanna to suppress woody plant sprouts and further promote species diversity. While the prescribed burn was a success, the root systems of recently cut trees sent up a flush of sprouts afterward. To control this sprouting and deplete energy stored in the root systems of trees, more burns will be needed. The plan is to conduct prescribed burns for three consecutive years over the entire 52 acres. Once these annual burns are completed, the savanna can be broken into smaller compartments. Varying fire intensity, timing and acreage will result in consistent wildlife habitat availability and even more plant diversity.
The end result of this project is yet to be determined. Will bobwhite quail return to the savanna? Will the total plant species list reach 200? 250? While we do not have the answers to these questions, we do know that expanding the project acreage will increase the likelihood that the answer to these questions is yes. Staff members from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Natural Resources Conservation Service and the North Carolina Forest Service are seeking landowners to manage their property in a similar fashion.
Everhart has helped with this effort by hosting a landowner outreach tour in August. By allowing 20 landowners from across the Piedmont to tour his property, he has spread the message that timber production and habitat restoration can be integrated to meet land management objectives. This is an idea that most landowners cannot grasp without seeing it firsthand.
In Scouting we are taught to “leave a place better than you have found it.” The modern Hippocratic oath states, “May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.” Everhart has followed this guidance in many facets of life and most certainly in his land management activities. He has not only preserved green space, but made it better, healing it to a level seldom seen on privately owned lands in the Piedmont. The excitement and joy for this project is evident. There is a smile on Everhart’s face every time he walks or drives through the savanna. But the benefit and significance of this rare piece of Rowan County natural history does not stop at his property line. The knowledge gained during the implementation of this project is available to all landowners who are looking at management options for their property, and anyone who values the natural beauty of birds and butterflies may catch a glimpse of Everhart’s efforts as the wildlife of the savanna move on to other parts of the county, state and nation.
Isenhour is a technical assistance biologist.