ROCKY POINT, N.C. (AP) — With a mission to preserve the beauty of natural habitats along the North Carolina coast, Janice Allen was thrilled with the efforts to protect what she called a “little wetland gem” by two busy highways in Rocky Point.
Allen, director of Land Protection for Coastal Land Trust, is also grateful to landowners and others for working with the organization to preserve it and not lose its uniqueness for wood or something else.
“It’s kind of peculiar because you don’t usually get plant species from the Gulf Coast, Coastal Plains, Mountain, and Piedmont regions all coming together on a site like this,” she said.
North Carolina Coastal Land Trust bought 32 acres of land in Rocky Point with a rare wetland type known as wet marl forest, which combines those unique plant species. The property at the intersection of Interstate 40 and NC 210 was purchased from landowners Diane Toothman, Sheryl Shelby and Elizabeth Hunley. Funding for the sale was secured through a grant program from the US Fish and Wildlife Services North American Wetlands Conservation Act.
“We are incredibly grateful that the Coastal Land Trust was willing to take on the conservation of this precious habitat,” said Diane Toothman’s son Byron. “Rapid changes to the landscape, invasive species, logging and mining have gradually eroded the already limited range of this unique community. It is difficult to overstate the importance of its conservation. There are no better hands to manage of this parcel than the Coastal Land Trust. In addition to the protection, our hope is that the preservation of this land can also help in the remediation of neighboring lands where wet marl forest once existed.”
It is small in size, but officials pointed out that the conservation values of the property are significant. It is located within the larger Rocky Point Marl Forest Significant Natural Heritage Area and is considered an “exceptionally ecologically significant site” by the NC Natural Heritage Program.
“This wet mold forest property was near the top of our Top 40 list because of its biological uniqueness,” Allen said.
What makes it special?
Dr. David Webster, senior associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina Wilmington reported two of the state’s rarest animals, the eastern woodrat and canebrake rattle, flourish in the forest.
“For many years I have taken my ecology students to this site so that we can study the soil, flora and fauna of the site. Permanent protection of this site ensures that this unique habitat, and its composition of rare plants and animals, will continue to survive,” Webster said in a news release.
Eric Bolen, UNCW professor emeritus of biology and marine biology, added that Wet Mal Forest showcases the biodiversity of the region and a rare occurrence where a high water table lies above flat limestone.
If home and business development continues in Rocky Point, Allen said the wetlands environment is not attractive for construction, but would have been a potential threat to limestone mining and timber, which would affect the area.
According to researchers, the area also has nutmeg-hickory (the northernmost range of occurrence for this species which has a primary range in the lower Mississippi River valley), rough-leaf dogwood (in one of the two places where it is able) and a thick cover of saw palmetto.
“When you think about these isolated little properties that are surrounded by development, it might be harder for some of the species to be viable over a long period of time, in terms of movement,” Allen said. more challenging. But we keep working.”
Mike Schafale, an ecologist with the NC Natural Heritage Program, said the area in Rocky Point is found nowhere else in the world.
“Of the highest priority, irreplaceable sites that were known when I started my career in the early 1980s, almost all have seen some substantial amount of protection over the years,” Schafale said. “Rocky Point is one of the last to see any conservation success.”
Since 1992, the Coastal Land Trust has preserved more than 84,000 acres of sites of scenic, recreational, historic, and ecological value. The area in Rocky point is one of several conservation projects in Pender County. Some of those in the past include the Abbey Nature Preserve in Scotts Hill with more than 60 acres, the 177-acre BW Wells Savannah site north of Burgaw, and a nature reserve on the Northeast Cape Fear River with more than 700 acres near Interstate 40.
“I feel strongly about protecting these types of lands everywhere,” Allen said. “The diversity of our landscapes is very important. That is part of our mission, to protect these special places. Not only the rare plants and animals, but we also protect places for people to come out for recreation.”