In a rural Sussex County enclave where turkey vultures seem to outnumber humans, Norfolk Southern is helping The Nature Conservancy grow the largest-ever longleaf pine reforestation project in Virginia.
In 2013, the Norfolk Southern Foundation, our charitable giving arm, pledged $50,000 over two years to support the conservancy’s efforts to restore one of North America’s most threatened forest ecosystems. The grant is being used in part to plant about 125 acres with longleaf pine seedlings – about 77,500 trees – at the Raccoon Creek Pinelands and Owen Tract near the Sussex County village of Yale. They are part of a larger 1,800-acre tract the conservancy is converting to longleaf pines with the help of landowner Bill Owen.
The grant also will pay for prescribed burns at the conservancy’s Piney Grove longleaf pine preserve outside Wakefield, Va., a refuge for Virginia’s rarest bird – endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. Periodic controlled burns are essential to the health of longleaf pine forests, helping to maintain their rich ecological diversity.
The conservancy is working to restore longleaf pine forests in all nine states across their historic range in the U.S. southeast. In Virginia, the conservancy hopes to restore 100,000 to 125,000 acres. A 1998 census in Virginia found that approximately 4,400 of the rare pine trees remained on less than 800 acres. Longleaf pines once covered 1.5 million acres in Virginia’s southeastern coastal plain and Piedmont regions.
“This is all about trying to re-establish a northern foothold for longleaf pines,” said Brian van Eerden, the conservancy’s Southern Rivers project director. “Norfolk Southern has been a leader in longleaf pine conservation at its Brosnan Forest in South Carolina, and now it has this great longleaf pine project in the company’s backyard in Virginia.”
Norfolk Southern’s support, he said, helped attract a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The National Resources Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also is a partner in the project.
“When you have a major corporation like Norfolk Southern stepping in to be a leader, it lifts the significance of the project and really underscores how this forest type is of interest to a cross-section of interest groups,” he said.
The Norfolk Southern Foundation supports conservation projects that align with the railroad’s corporate sustainability goals. Longleaf pines are part of the railroad’s legacy, dating to woodlands owned in the 1800s by the South Carolina Canal and Railroad – our earliest predecessor railroad. Today, we maintain an approximately 6,200-acre longleaf pine forest in Dorchester, S.C., at our Brosnan Forest preserve. There, we have partnered with government agencies and nonprofit conservation groups to advance research, conservation, and restoration of the longleaf ecosystem. Our partnership with the conservancy in Virginia deepens that commitment.
“The Nature Conservancy’s efforts are very much in line with Norfolk Southern’s conservation values,” said Esi Waters, our manager corporate sustainability. “By offering them financial support, we help empower them to do even more. We’re especially happy that The Nature Conservancy was able to leverage our donation to bring in additional grant money, because it magnifies the effect we’re having.”
The longleaf pine seedlings planted at the Raccoon Creek Pinelands eventually will help filter out nutrients and sediments from the Nottoway River, a source of drinking water for the Norfolk, Va., region. In addition, the trees, which can grow to 150 feet, one day could provide critical habitat for a variety of animal species, including red-cockaded woodpeckers, Bachman’s sparrows, and Mabee’s salamanders. The trees also could support a diverse flora, including pitcherplants, orchids, lilies, showy wildflowers, grasses, and sedges.