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

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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