Dry sandy ridges are long leaf pine savannas if burned frequently enough, ignited by lightning or humans. PHOTO BY GINGER TRAVIS
In late March I drove down to the Sandhills and saw the oldest known living longleaf pine tree in North Carolina—and as a bonus the second largest known NC longleaf. Both were on the Boyd Tract of the Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve, the first such preserve in the state parks system.
I hadn’t planned on seeing extraordinary individual trees—and they actually kind of hijacked my story. I’d gone down to hike the trails in the main unit of the Weymouth Woods Preserve and to learn more about the whole extraordinary ecosystem of the fire-maintained longleaf pine savanna. And I did that.
But the unexpected highlight was visiting a second unit, the Boyd Tract, and being in the presence of the old-growth trees. Those ancient beings humble me.
So, the age of that oldest tree? As determined by coring: 469 years.
In 1548 when the tree was a sprout, Columbus had already visited North America, but there wasn’t a permanent European settlement on the continent. By 1585, the tree was a youthful 37 years old as the Roanoke Colony was being founded—very soon to become the Lost Colony. By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the tree was 228 years old.
When it hit 300, its fellow longleaf trees by the thousands were being tapped for resin to distill into turpentine—or chopped down for lumber. At age 347, in 1895, the tree was becoming an increasingly rare survivor of timber cutting to be followed by resort development, as that year a Yankee bought nearby acreage to develop Pinehurst, future golf mecca. At the tree’s 400th birthday, in 1948, it was ancient; that year Truman beat Dewey for president, the Marshall Plan was enacted . . . and Bill France Sr. founded NASCAR. Now here we are in 2017: not far to go to age 500 —for the tree. (In 2048 I’ll be dust.)
On my weekday visit, the refreshing thing to me was that there was no big fuss about the oldest tree and I had to find it myself (after park staff told me where to look). It doesn’t have a name and there’s no sign to mark it. You have to keep a sharp eye out as you hike the Boyd Tract’s Round Timber Trail to spot two small garden stakes at the beginning of a little side path to the tree. Same thing at the NC-second-biggest longleaf; the park staff suggests how to find it, and off you go with your trail map. My guess is that a bit of obscurity significantly reduces wear and tear around the base of the two trees. But that will change on April 22 (Earth Day) when a birthday bash is planned for the oldest tree, complete with cake.
This free celebration is really about raising awareness for the unique, fire-dependent ecosystem represented by longleaf pine savannas. The family-friendly event will include ranger-led walks to the oldest tree, a prescribed burn demonstration (weather permitting), face painting, bluebird-house building, food trucks and more. If you prefer solitude, go alone to see the tree on any weekday!
I do recommend first spending time at the visitor center at the main unit of Weymouth Woods on Ft. Bragg Road. (The Boyd Tract is a couple miles away on E. Connecticut Avenue.) That’s where I went first. The visitor center folks are very welcoming and knowledgeable and will steer you to any trails offering the experience you seek.
For the most varied scenery on the main tract, the woman at the front desk recommended to me the Lighter Stump Trail connecting to the Pine Island Trail, for a total of a mile and a half of easy walking. The Lighter Stump Trail begins on the dry ridge top with a classic longleaf savanna, maintained by burning every 2 to 3 years: longleaf pines overhead, wiregrass below.
This is the preferred habitat of the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species that attracts birders like crazy including out-of-staters working on their life lists. Red-cockadeds are pretty easy to find at Weymouth Woods in the right season, and for the past couple of years a pair has nested in a tree 10 feet from the end of the visitor center and a few yards from the parking lot!
I had hoped to see the woodpeckers during my March 29 visit, but did not. It was a little too early. The nest tree itself was a sight to behold, though. It was coated with sap over a huge area of the trunk below the nest hole. It is thought that the sap deters snakes from climbing the tree to steal eggs or nestlings. Red-cockadeds are our only woodpeckers that excavate nest cavities in living wood.
On the trail descending the ridge I saw areas with signs giving the year of the burns. Burning down to mineral soil is necessary for longleaf seeds to germinate and grow. Where gaps in the tree canopy flooded the sand with sunlight I saw moplike young pines in the “grass stage” when they look a lot like wiregrass clumps except greener.
The trunkless young pines can spend years in this stage developing deep roots before suddenly spurting upward. They can survive the quick cool fires that kill competing shrubs and hardwood trees.
Soon I got to a blackened ashy area that had been burned just weeks before. And then, past that, I was down off the ridge into a little valley with a stream. The trees here were different, the trail often followed a boardwalk, and the sound of water was refreshing.
As I walked back up the ridge I ran into a small flock of birds and really regretted forgetting my binoculars in the car. But I needed to get over to the Boyd Tract, so I pushed on.
Before walking the trails I had asked the preserve superintendent, Billy Hartness, what he wanted people to see at Weymouth Woods, I was thinking about the famous woodpeckers. But what he said was “The difference. I want people to see the difference,” referring to the whole ecosystem. “They don’t know what’s here. And it’s an endangered ecosystem.” It is. Only an estimated three percent remains of the original 90 million acres of longleaf forest that once covered much of the coastal plain from Virginia to Texas.
Because so few remain, longleaf pine forests look exotic to the eyes of Piedmont dwellers. Our pines are mostly lobloblollies, and we take for granted oaks and maples (and parking lots and shopping centers). To us—at least to me—the longleaf-wiregrass ecosystem looks like another world. And it is a wonderful thing to see such places.
I hope you’ll go to Weymouth Woods and see this other world. (Cool days are best; it can be really hot in the Sandhills.) The “other worlds” like this one—including the Carolina bay lakes, the eastern cypress swamps, the amphibolite mountains of the Blue Ridge—these great places truly need our love and understanding.
The belief that nature is worthy of preservation—that it is important to humans in deep, nonfinancial ways—seems not to be a belief shared by many in power in Washington today. The belief isn’t writ in stone. So we need to nurture that belief for all we’re worth and share it widely and deeply with our friends, families and coworkers.
Otherwise, especially on federal lands, longleaf pines might become viewed as nothing more than saw timber. And the management of the ecosystem with prescribed burns, which cost money, could be abandoned. If we withhold fire and good management, then fire-dependent plants and animals will fade away. Goodbye, woodpecker.
Weymouth Woods Nature Preserve
More info on the preserve: link for Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve is at ncparks.gov.
The preserve is located 65 miles south of Chapel Hill, via Hwy 15/501 and US 1.
Address of main unit: 1024 Ft. Bragg Rd., Southern Pines, NC 28387; phone 910-692-2167.
Boyd Tract address with parking at Weymouth Center: 555 E. Connecticut Ave., Southern Pines 28387.
Party for the Pine info: partyforthepine.org.