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Coming Full Circle

Naval Stores, Navy Transfers, and Native Longleaf Pine.

 


In 1996, the Department of Defense transferred 216 acres of uplands on the banks of the
Nansemond River to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as part of the Base Realignment
and Closure Act. The transfer of property,used by the US Navy, along with an earlier transfer of
marsh along the river in 1973, completed a 423-acre national wildlife refuge. The transfer was
not without issue, as facilities were removed and remediation was needed to address years of
military use. Once completed, Nansemond National Wildlife Refuge was closed to the public
and relegated to custodial status, an unstaffed satellite of Great Dismal Swamp NWR.
The Navy had mowed most of the uplands on the site regularly to maintain the facility for
operational purposes. With the transfer, the mowing ceased and the land became typical old
field regrowth, but remained largely grassland. While there was no active management of the
refuge through the years, FWS plans did call for the uplands to remain as grasslands, and
prescribed burning was discussed as a means to manage the grasslands and set back the woody
encroachment.

Photo by Bobby Clontz


The goal of maintaining the grassland characteristics of the site, and the ability to prescribed
burn, came together with a unique the opportunity to combine those goals with another
relatively new initiative in Southeastern Virginia, and recently the FWS decided to do a Longleaf
Pine (Pinus palustris) planting on the site to expand the footprint of the species in the Tidewater
area. Longleaf restoration is a high priority for all resource agencies in Virginia, led by the
Department of Forestry and Department of Conservation and Recreation's Natural Heritage
Division.


There is no good historical record of land use or land cover on the property prior to it becoming
Navy property. Old maps indicate that it had been cleared and farmed or grazed prior to
becoming a Navy facility. The Navy acquired the property during World War II and established
a US Naval Air Station, known as Monogram Field. After the war, the site was converted to a
transmitter facility and the Naval Radio Transmitting Facility Driver remained in operation until
the mid-1990s.


The general history of the area in and around Hampton Roads is well known and a matter of
record. Longleaf Pine grew in abundance, and use of the tree in the shipbuilding and naval
stores industry is well-documented. The location of what is now Nansemond NWR, with its
high banks on the east side of the Nansemond River, and the predominate soil – the loamy
fine sand of the Nansemond type - would seem to have been a natural Longleaf site.
As sailing ships entered the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and came up into the tributaries,
including the Nansemond River, Longleaf would have been a very visible and attractive
resource. The ease of access to forested areas along the Suffolk escarpment and areas inland via
the Nansemond River would have been perfect for harvesting trees for ship-building and setting
up pitch and tar collection for naval stores.


The demise of Longleaf as a forest community, which once extended over hundreds of
thousands of acres in southeastern Virginia and northeast North Carolina, was due to a number
of factors, including overharvesting to support the maritime industry, which utilized naval
stores and masts from Longleaf, along with timbering, suppression of fire, and the introduction
of free-ranging hogs, which ate the young Longleaf in its grass stage. The elimination of natural
regeneration meant that management action was the only means to restore the species to its
former range.


The FWS plans to plant widely-spaced Longleaf seedlings at Nansemond with the intent of
establishing more of an open pine savanna on site, which will maintain the grassland
characteristics of the refuge, but still introduce Longleaf as an overstory species. Prescribed
burning is necessary to clear the site for planting as well as maintain the Longleaf once they
become established. On December 16, 2016 the first prescribed burn in the refuge’s history
was completed by personnel from the Fish and Wildlife Service and State and TNC partners.


Blacklining during the first prescribed fire at Nansemond NWR (FWS photo)


The 50-acre burn unit was then planted the following week with 8,000 native Longleaf
seedlings, in a cooperative venture with the Department of Forestry. The site will require active
management, including regular burns and perhaps herbicide applications, for successful
reestablishment. An additional 50-60 acres of uplands will be burned in 2017, to be followed by
another round of planting, should the initial planting be successful.


In addition to the transfer of 216 acres to the FWS in 1996, the Department of Defense also
transferred approximately 330 acres of the Driver site to the City of Suffolk, which effectively
divided the ownership of the old Navy site in half. If the City of Suffolk were to join the
Longleaf restoration effort on some of the adjacent city property, as they have done on
another City-owned property west of the Nansemond River, the reestablishment of Longleaf
on the combined FWS and city property would constitute one of the largest restoration sites in
the state of Virginia.


The disappearance of longleaf pine from Virginia as a consequence of the cumulative effects of
over three and a half centuries of European civilization began on the banks of the Nansemond
River and the other rivers that flowed into the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The transfer of
Navy property to a conservation agency, and recent efforts to restore Longleaf to the site, may
bring the history of Longleaf in Virginia full circle in the coming years.


A native Longleaf Pine seedling planted at the recently-burned Nansemond NWR (FWS photo)

 

 

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