STPAL’s land holdings include many tracts that are undergoing environmental enhancement and restoration. One such tract is currently known as Burke County Natural Land. It is just south of Augusta, Georgia. The county seat of Burke County is the pretty town of Waynesboro.
This 354-acre tract consists of 95% old pasture and 5% wooded land and is generally bounded by small landowners and rural woodland/farmland tracts. The pasture is naturally succeeding to brush and tree saplings. The wooded areas are small clumps of mixed pine hardwood that was cutover prior to STPAL’s acquisition. The tract was originally a mix of longleaf pine on the sandier uplands, including some scrub oak and other hardwood. The lower, more moist areas would have been a hardwood and mixed pine hardwood forest. It is within the Fall Line Sand Hills, an important ecological region of Georgia. The Sand Hills are a narrow, rolling to hilly, highly dissected belt stretching across the state from Augusta to Columbus. The region is composed primarily of Cretaceous and Eocene marine sands and clays deposited over the crystalline and metamorphic rocks of the Piedmont. Soils are mostly excessively well drained and low in nutrients, although soils in some areas contain more loamy and clayey horizons. The driest sites have typical sandhill vegetation characterized by longleaf pine and turkey oak. Other areas have shortleaf-loblolly pine forests or mixed oak-pine forests.
The land was almost certainly put into cotton production after the native long leaf pines were harvested. It was largely neglected for many years prior to STPAL’s acquisition in 2016. The neglect allowed kudzu, Bermuda grass, Japanese honeysuckle, Callery or Bradford pear, Chinese privet, chinaberry, crabgrass, bahia grass, and other non-native plants to proliferate.
In considering STPAL’s land holdings it was likely the least beneficial to wildlife and people. It was certainly the least attractive. So STPAL prioritized it for an intensive rehabilitation process with the goal to maximize its value as conservation land and then open it up for no cost recreational and educational public usage. It is currently available for public small game hunting via the Georgia Department of Natural Resources VPA program.
In 2018 the STPAL Board made the hard decision to utilize chemical spraying to aggressively clear 60 acres of well-established invasive plants. The vote was not unanimous. But the primary aspect that motivated the action was that the one-time spraying would allow for a dramatic transformation that over time should outweigh any harm done by the chemicals. There was careful consideration of the chemicals, the application process, and the area sprayed (i.e. not near any water). The Georgia Forestry Commission was hired to cut a grid of fire breaks to allow for future ground cover control to be done via controlled burning.
In March of 2019 54 acres were hand planted with long leaf pine seedlings. Once the seedlings emerge from the bush stage (3-5 years) appropriate native ground cover will be established. The general plan going forward is to plant two additional +/- 50-acre sections in long leaf pine with a gap year between each planting. The long leaf seedlings are planted at a density that should yield a sustainable natural density. There is a failure rate for the seedlings of 10-35% which should create a randomness to the forest’s density. Native appropriate plants will be added to the open spaces. There are no plans to ever do any commercial harvesting of the long leaf pines. The areas not planted with long leaf pines will be transitioned into other typical native habitats with areas such as mixed pine & hardwood stands, grasslands, and transition areas. The goal is to return the tract to its presumed native state. It may take 75-100 years to achieve, but it should be worth the wait.
As the site develops it will be improved as habitat for wildlife such as white-tailed deer, raccoon, opossum, parula warbler, gray squirrel, hooded warbler, tufted titmice, northern bobwhite, cardinal, nuthatch, blue jays, field sparrow, yellow-breasted chat, several woodpecker species, northern mockingbird, green frog, southern toad, bobcat, gray fox, fox squirrel, wood rat, vole, and shrew. A variety of native reptiles and amphibians are likely including various non-venomous water snakes, black rat snake, copperhead snake, canebrake rattlesnake, green tree frog, fence lizard, and green anole.
Rare and endangered plant species could likely include Caroline pink, Georgia aster, sandhill rosemary, hooded pitcher plant, pink lady slipper, and sandhill milkvetch. Rare and endangered wildlife could likely include Bachmann’s sparrow, Southeastern pocket gopher, painted bunting, and southern hog-nose snake. There should be neotropical migrants like the gray catbird, yellow-breasted chat, field sparrow, loggerhead shrike, and prairie warbler.
To date STPAL has about $30,000 invested in the restoration process and pays about $6,000 in annual property taxes for this site.