Planting for the future
North Carolina Boy Scouts pledge stewardship of the environment
Reveille sounds. Long lines of uniformed Boy Scouts circle the flagpole. Pledges and singing follow. Out beyond this morning ritual, stately young longleaf pine trees proudly peek over swaying grasses.
The Cape Fear Council of the Boy Scouts of America is restoring the longleaf pine ecosystem and awakening its rich history at Camp Bowers in eastern North Carolina. They are contributing to the goal of the America’s Longleaf Initiative to bring back an ecosystem that once spanned from Virginia to Texas, and in North Carolina supports unique wildlife such as the Venus flytrap, which is considered at risk in the wild.
Camp Bowers, an expanse of land along the Cape Fear River in Bladen County about an hour northwest of Wilmington, made a bold decision to transition from loblolly pine to native longleaf pine. Moreover, they turned the endeavor into an educational opportunity. A kiosk tells the story of the tree, the ecosystem, and the wildlife dependent upon it.
“The educational kiosk has been incorporated in the introductory tour that the Scouts are given upon their arrival for summer camp,” said Jacob Jay, Camp Bowers site manager. “It gives everyone a chance to understand what is going on and to learn about the plan for the restoration of the longleaf.” Thousands of Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts visit the camp annually.
In collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and The Longleaf Alliance, Inc., the Cape Fear Council planted 70 acres of longleaf pine. The trees and the scouts are thriving.
The restored longleaf ecosystem at Camp Bowers will create habitat for native plant and animal species. From fox squirrels to wild turkeys, many species make their homes among the longleaf.
Although there are no known endangered species on the property, only a few miles away endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers live among the longleaf on Bladen Lakes State Forest and Jones Lake State Park, and could possibly show up in the future, as could Venus flytraps. Cape Fear Council Scout Executive Jonathan Widmark believes the project has multiple benefits.
“A central theme of scouting is stewardship of the environment,” he said. “The longleaf restoration on the camp can help Scouts with merit badges, including forestry, insects, and botany.”
“Longleaf is a great tree,” said registered forester and longtime camp volunteer Dean Alsup, who spearheaded the effort. Alsup, whose father was also a local forester and supporter of the Boy Scouts, recalls a time when more of North Carolina was in longleaf. He wants every camper passing through the gates to understand the cultural significance of longleaf in North Carolina. “Longleaf works well on sandy soils. It’s a piece of North Carolina. It was a good fit for the site. I believe that it’s important for Boy Scouts to know about longleaf and its role in North Carolina as they learn about our forests and ecosystems, particularly in this part of the state.”
Alsup reached out to Partners for Fish and Wildlife to support his idea for restoring longleaf at Camp Bowers. “We couldn’t have asked for a better experience working with Partners for Fish and Wildlife. It was super great,” he said. “Partners is a great program to help re-establish longleaf pine and their staff is wonderful to work with.”
Restoration is not always pretty
In 2014, everyone took for granted the mature loblolly pine along Highway 53 near the camp entrance, along the winding dirt road into the camp, and the stand that created shade over campsites in the interior of the camp. However, those trees had reached their peak value, and without harvesting, their value would have gradually decreased. So they were harvested.
“Few people were prepared for the eyesore of a clear cut, especially around the camp buildings,” Widmark recalled. The cut areas were treated with herbicides to remove competition for the new longleaf that would be planted. In January 2016, longleaf seedlings were planted. Alsup was right about longleaf being the perfect tree for this site.
“The general consensus is that everyone is stunned by how quickly the longleaf are growing,” said Jay, the site manager. “They no longer see a clear cut. Instead, they can visualize the future forest.” “It will be amazing in 20 years,” Widmark added.
But amazing won’t just happen on its own. Longleaf is an ecosystem that requires management, including prescribed burns, which mimic naturally occurring fires. Fire stimulates growth of native grasses and wildflowers, keeps hardwood trees small, and reduces the chance for dangerous wildfires. As a first step, Alsup is working with the North Carolina Forest Service to conduct a pre-commercial thinning, which means removing the undesirable loblolly and hardwoods that have sprouted among the longleaf.
Leading by example
Partners for Fish and Wildlife is just as much about education and inspiration as it is habitat restoration. The program is not just about restoring privately owned land, but also about working as a team, learning along the way.
Thousands of young Scouts have a new story to take home from camp this summer. One day some of their children may be camping under these stately longleaf, and spotting the many kinds of wildlife that thrive only among these trees.
Phil Kloer, Public Affairs Specialist
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