U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge System Northeast Region Conserving the nature of the Northeast
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Northeast Region Fire Intranet

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge plants Atlantic white cedars in wake of South One Fire

All photos by Laura Mitchell/USFWS

In July of 2011, Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge finished restoring Atlantic White Cedar stands burned by the South One wildfire in 2008. Crews started planting 2-year old Atlantic white cedar trees in nearly 800 acres of the 5,000-acre fire in May of 2010.

About 234,000 seedlings grown from native seed collected at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge were planted at a density of 300 trees per acre across difficult terrain in the swamp. Planting was focused on areas that burned the most severely and where the seed bank of Atlantic white cedars had been depleted as revealed by aerial photography and ground truthing by refuge and Northeast Regional Fire Program staff. The refuge also cooperated with Christopher Newport University to do Atlantic white cedar seedling surveys in the wildfire area.

The Department of Interior helped fund the project through Interagency Burned Area Rehabilitation money.

In the summer of 2011, the refuge followed up planting with herbicide to control competing shrubs, vines, and other hardwood trees. Refuge staff planned to monitor tree survival 1.5 years after planting, but the Lateral West Fire, detected on August 4, 2011, burned over 6,300 acres, including all of the areas where the seedlings had been planted.

Atlantic white cedars once grew along the Atlantic coastal plain from Maine to Mississippi, but only about 2 percent of the tree's range remains. Before Hurricane Isabel in 2003, Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge had the largest remaining stands of this species. The hurricane blew down 3,600 acres of the purest stands.

The refuge was within 2 weeks of completing an 1,100-acre Atlantic white cedar restoration project in 2008 when the South One fire burned through most of the restoration areas. Under wet conditions, fires may kill Atlantic white cedars, but leave the ground and seeds intact for regeneration. However, the South One Fire burned during a drought and likely eliminated seeds. Without replanting Atlantic white cedars, severely burned areas would likely be invaded by other species such as red maples.

Due to hotter and drier summers, the amount of peat lost in the two fires, and the altered nature of Great Dismal Swamp (the swamp has been drained), the future of Atlantic white cedar restoration on the refuge is uncertain.

Green Atlantic white cedar seedlings planted in the blackened swamp
Planted Atlantic white cedars in the burned area.


A person with a gray shirt and short sleeves holds a green Atlantic white cedar seedling with a brown root wad
Atlantic white cedar seedling with root wad.
Two men talk in front of a burned over swamp.  The ground is black but there are some green plants growing in it.
Forester Bryan Poovey of Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge discusses the project with a planting crew member.
Two workers sit on the ground, one with a straw hat on, and sort through boxes of Atlantic white cedar seedlings
A planting crew prepares Atlantic white cedar seedlings.
A worker carries a white box on his head through a burned over swamp with some green plants growing in it.
A worker hauls seedlings into the swamp.