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Margaret J. Nichols Piedmont Longleaf Pine Preserve

The Zoo’s Nichols Preserve is a 116-acre property containing one of the finest examples of Piedmont longleaf pine forest in North Carolina. In partnership with the LandTrust for Central North Carolina, the Zoo completed the purchase of the
property in July 2012 with funds from the NC Natural Heritage Trust Fund and an anonymous private donor.

Hundreds of years ago this forest was probably fairly widely scattered trees with grasses and wildflowers growing between them, with very few shrubs and hardwood trees. This type of forest is called a savanna if the trees are widely scattered and a woodland if they are closer together. Since fire was excluded from the forest, many oak trees have grown up among the pines and a thick layer of oak leaves and pine needles keeps new longleaf pines from growing on the forest floor. After the land purchase, plans began immediately to reintroduce fire into the forest, to help bring back a more open structure, and the plants that are characteristic of this now rare Piedmont forest type.

Two volunteer work days were held to prepare the forest for the controlled burn. In December, ten local volunteers started locating and measuring the largest longleaf pine trees, and raking excess duff from around their bases. In
February, seventeen Catawba College students continued the work. They 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 and they eagerly participated and enjoyed the outdoor learning experience.

In March 2013, NC Forest Service County Ranger Scott Maynor and other Forest Service personnel installed fire lines and performed the prescribed burn over about 85 acres of the 116-acre tract. This critically important first burn took place just two days after a good soaking rain, so that only the top layer of pine needles was removed. The prescribed fire was perfect. It provided a gentle low temperature burn that removed the first layer of pine straw on the forest floor. Over the years of fire suppression, the roots of the longleaf pine trees have grown upward into the shallow soil produced by decomposed pine needles. This gradual approach to re-introducing fire will encourage the roots to move back down into the mineral soil without damaging the trees by burning up all the roots at once.

The following summer, several visits to the Preserve showed that already the return of fire to the landscape was having a positive effect on plant diversity. Big bluestem, a native grass that is now rare in Montgomery County, was spotted growing on the site and other native grasses were spreading as well. Larger patches of native wildflowers like shaggy blazing star (Liatris pilosa), wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), compass plant (Silphium compositum) and large-flowered aster (Symphyotrichum grandiflorum) were blooming under the pine trees by late summer.

Controlled burns are planned to take place every two years until the ground layer of the forest is restored, at first in winter or early spring, then later in the warmer season of mid-spring as the fuel load is reduced.

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