Southern Pines Pilot, Nov. 20, 2005
Preserving Rural Way: Protecting Pines Can Be Profitable
The Sandhills Area Land Trust gave a group of people an opportunity to step
into the past Thursday.
The Sandhills was once a land almost completely covered by longleaf pine
forests. It was characterized by a canopy of longleaf pines and wire grass
undergrowth. The secret to keeping that forest healthy was fire.
A group of Sandhills conservationists have visited two places where, through
hard work, the forests have been able to recover.
The Sandhills Area Land Trust (SALT) took many of its members and some state
conservation leaders on a tour of some conservation lands that have been
important to the county.
The first area was a spot on the Moore County and Richmond County border.
Drowning Creek runs through the property, and it’s usually closed to the
public either by SALT’s designs or by the river itself flooding and making a
swamp of the land.
Ten miles downstream is the intake for the town of Southern Pines.
“It’s one of the jewels that is protecting your water supply,” said Candace
Williams, SALT program coordinator, who works out of the Cumberland County
The 856-acre area surrounding Drowning Creek is referred to as Beaver Dam
“Drowning Creek is very important,” said SALT Executive Director Richard
Perritt. “We’re at the headwaters of the entire Lumber River basin.”
The second area was the Lighterwood Farm in West End. The owner has used
regular burning to return the forest to what it once was.
The point of the entire expedition was to help landowners realize that
working with conservationists can not only be a good way to preserve land,
but can also help them turn a profit.
The group met in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn in Southern Pines,
boarded a bus and headed south to the first stop — the Johnson Farm. It’s
owned by Pressley R. “Doc” Rankin. A conservation easement was placed on the
swamp seven days into this year.
Rankin purchased the property on behalf of his family and Beaver Dam Pines
Inc., which he was president in 1961.
SALT was able to purchase the easement thanks to money from the state’s
Ecosystem Enhancement Program (EEP). That is a partnership between the N.C.
Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the N.C. Department of
Transportation and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.
They have also worked with the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which
funded 700 acres of protected land.
Protecting Drowning Creek
Reed Wilson, president of Conservation Trust North Carolina, said there are
24 trusts like SALT in the state, and they have worked with several state
organizations in the last 15 years to protect 185,000 acres in over 1,000
The funding for the EEP program has since dried up, Williams said, but it
has already allowed SALT to protect the seven miles of forest along Drowning
Creek and one of its tributaries.
The land was once used by the heirs of the Johnson and Johnson fortune. They
had a hunting lodge on the property.
When Rankin purchased the land 30 years ago, he planted most of the trees on
what was then farmland. The farm recently produced some timber because an
area had to be cut due to beetle infestation.
“This is an active farm that continues to be productive,” Perritt said.
Bruce Sorrie, an expert on the ecology of the Sandhills, gave the group of
about 40 a quick talk about what makes the area special.
Drowning Creek is generally so hard to get close to that Williams had
planned to tell the group to take a quick look as the bus went over the
bridge because that was probably the only chance they were going to get.
But the relatively light rainfall of this year has kept the land open, and
the group made it right up to the shores of Drowning Creek. Sorrie pointed
out the types of hardwood trees that like the damp soil, such as swamp black
gums, laurel oaks and red maples.
Sorrie recently discovered a new species of lily in Moore County. He named
it the Sandhills Lily.
Drowning Creek is what is known as “black water.” The reason is it is high
in tannic acid and doesn’t carry a lot of sediment like a “brown water”
river such as the Cape Fear.
“All the water came from rain,” Sorrie said. “It fell to the ground and
seeped down until it hit an impermeable clay layer. Then it gets forced
laterally and it also gets cleansed as it goes through the sand.”
When the rains start to fall again, the area the group got to see would
likely be under four feet of water, Sorrie said.
“This is only the second time we’ve been able to get here,” Perritt said.
The area has been under moderate drought conditions.
“If this were 2003, [the water] would be up to your waist,” said Sorrie.
“That shows you how much the dry spell has affected the area.”
After exploring the area on the banks of Drowning Creek, the group boarded
vans to head back to the bus (the bus couldn’t navigate the dirt roads that
lead to the farm).
‘Wonderful Wood Product’
The next stop was the Lighterwood Farm and the home of Jesse Wimberley.
After eating a barbecue lunch, the group listened to Wimberley give a short
history of the farm.
The group ate under a tent outside the old farmhouse that Wimberley and his
mother, Katie Speight Wimberley Caddell, still lives in. She was born in the
house and so was her father.
His family moved to Moore County from Robeson County in 1870. They were in
the turpentine business.
His great-grandfather, Gonsolvo Speight, built the home out of longleaf
heart pine. A longleaf pine becomes a heart pine only after over 100 years.
Wimberley said that there are some pines on the property approaching 400
“It’s the most wonderful wood product,” Wimberley said. “[The house] is
still solid after hundreds of years. If you look at it, you’ll see it’s
sitting on blocks of wood that have been there since 1870.”
At some point, his family converted the land into a tobacco farm and raised
free-range cattle. Wimberley said that his family always believed in the
value of burning the land, he said.
“My family never got that bad connotation associated with fire,” he said.
Wimberley inherited his parcel in 1986. It had been abandoned for about 20
years, and the loblolly pines had started to move in. He named the area
Lighterwood Farm because of the many large pine stumps on the property.
“I moved here myself 20 years ago,” he said. “I’ve never regretted a moment
The resin-soaked wood of the longleaf pine was often called “lighterwood”
because of its use as kindling.
He decided to keep the stumps because they provide a map of what the forest
used to look like. Because of the stumps, he knows that when it was a
thriving longleaf pine forest the trees were fairly far apart creating an
“Do Something Good’
Since he moved there, he has been laboring to restore the longleaf pine
forest. It’s hard work, but Wimberley said it is also the most rewarding
work he’s done.
“Mom said to me, ‘You want this land, then do something good with it,’ ” he
The farm still produces economically. Wimberley has raked pine straw, grown
shitake mushrooms, engaged in other small-scale organic farming and given
educational tours to school children.
He plans on turning an old tobacco barn into an educational center to base
“My main product is education,” Wimberley said.
Since he’s taken over the property, he has used fire to transition the areas
that the loblolly pine has taken over to longleaf.
In leading a tour of the property, Wimberley pointed out the diversity of
plants that grow on hills just above running water. Several different types
of orchids and even some carnivorous plants were on the property, which he
said really thrills the school children.
He then led the group to a beaver dam pond that was surrounded by pond
pines, shortleaf pines, longleaf pines and loblolly pines. It’s a pristine
part of the land, Wimberley said.
“I’d love if you want to take a beaver home with you,” Wimberley said. “The
problem with them is they don’t stop. A beaver hears running water and
thinks, ‘That’s a problem.’”
Wimberley showed the group how the different species had adapted. Pond
pines, for example, don’t open up their cones until the tree is exposed to
fire. For the seeds to germinate, they have to fall on open ground.
“The pond pines figured out a long time ago that they could just wait for a
fire to come along,” he said.
Also, take for example the fox squirrel. It’s a ground squirrel, larger than
the common gray squirrel and has black fur. It’s the perfect camouflage next
to the burned bottom of a pine tree, Wimberley said.
That’s the type of lesson that he tries to impart to the school children
that visit the farm. To make an ecosystem work, everything has to help each
“There are wonderful relationships in a forest,” he said. “Everything works
together to make the forest work. Understanding that is one of the greatest
gifts you get from this land. The Sandhills are a fascinating place.”
Matthew Moriarty may be reached at 693-2479 or by e-mail at