Greenville Daily Reflector, July. 20, 2008

Scientists take part in Carolina Vegetation Survey

By Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector

Climate and environmental changes over time can impact the growth patterns of vegetation in Pitt County, as in all areas of the state. But if the types of vegetation and their various classifications of growth patterns are not identified in some way now, understanding those changes can become quite challenging with the passage of time.

That is just one of many potential benefits that a group of scientists and plant biologists see for the Carolina Vegetation Survey, being conducted this week at the Otter Creek Natural Area Research and Teaching Environment, located on N.C. 43 North in Falkland.

The group included David Knowles, a biologist and instructor at East Carolina University, Tom Wentworth, professor of plant biology at North Carolina State University and one of the founding members of the survey, and several graduate and undergraduate level interns who volunteered to conduct an eight-day field survey of plants and vegetation at the reserve.

The team's goal, working with others doing the same statewide, is to install permanent plots in which a complete inventory of plant life and other natural features, including soils, can be made, Wentworth said Saturday at the site. They call the process a "pulse."

Knowles, Wentworth and the others hauled packs loaded with fiberglass tape, metal piping and other measurement instruments deep within the 70-acre reserve and established what Wentworth considered an ideal location to set up the plot.

Each plot is about 1,000 square meters, about one-fourth the size of a football field, he said.

"Once we remove all the tapes and flags, we can return to the plot in the future and survey it again to learn what changes have happened to these natural communities over time," Wentworth said.

The reasons for studying changes can be almost as varied as the types of vegetation themselves, because many factors affect the change of an environment, Wentworth said.

"An ECU scientist might want to return to this plot after a hurricane, for instance, to study what changes occurred after that event," Wentworth said.

The details of the pulse that is being conducted by this team go far beyond any that have been gathered in the region, Wentworth said.

"Five years or so from now, when we've done a thorough characterization of the natural communities in the region, we'll be in an excellent position to write a book that describes them because we'll have a consistent and thorough database of information to work with. That doesn't exist in most regions of the state," he said.

Perhaps more important from a practical standpoint, Wentworth said, is the record being made of dwindling natural conditions that still exist while man-made changes occur all around them.

"These natural communities represent the best examples of what's left in our landscape, so they will be targets for people who want to restore damaged or degraded natural communities in the future," he said.

The team collaborates with the Ecosystem Enhancement Program of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources to perform their plot surveys for that purpose.

As the wide array of natural events, such as fires and hurricanes, and man-made events such as pine harvesting and housing development occur in and around the reserve, students and scientists in the future will return and observe the changes they cause.

Team assistants Ashley Tuggle, an undergraduate from Dallas, Texas, studying at Franklin College in Switzerland and Nick Adams, a graduate student from Chapel Hill studying at UNC-CH, began the cataloging process in one plot while J.C. Poythress, also of Chapel Hill, Wade Wall, a North Carolina State University graduate student, and Jarvis Hudson, a retired volunteer from Fayetteville, set up a second plot at another location in the reserve.

"I'm impressed by the number of species I've seen here already," Tuggle said. "I've seen a lot of bottomland hardwood species in my work along the Roanoke River, but it's nice to get into the uplands here and see all these species of oak. I don't think I've ever seen so many varieties."

Even a brief tour through the forest led by Knowles revealed the diverse landscape and natural features that make the reserve a scientifically valuable resource — and a simply rewarding experience for anyone with an appreciation for natural beauty.

"People think Greenville's all flat," he said as he walked first down, then up again, along a trail that revealed many trees that Hurricane Floyd toppled in 1999. He stopped and pointed down a steep hillside that led to a marshy bottom.

"This is a north-facing slope with a ridge line about 80 feet above sea level," he said. "This is mountain laurel, a species found in more northern climates, but found here because of that north-facing slope."

A walk in the opposite direction for about a half-mile led to Otter Creek, a winding blackwater stream that has its entire watershed in the sandy coastal plain, resulting in its year-round tea color, Knowles said.

"There's a lot of different species of fish in here, and even otters," he said.

Back at the pulse site, Adams took a break from his cataloging to talk about the challenges and rewards of his work, professionally and personally.

"We do this in the summer, so it gets hot and you work long days, but it's fun, and you build a sense of camaraderie with your teammates," he said.

The team will collect any unknown species of plants and send them back to their headquarters in Chapel Hill for identification, along with soil samples to be studied.

"Just entering the data into the database will be a lot of work for the people back there," he said.

The Carolina Vegetation Survey teams strive to get as many plots established throughout the state as possible so future biologists can study them and increase the available database and learn about the many types of natural communities that exist within North Carolina's diverse ecological boundaries.

There are now 6,000 such pulse sites established in the state, Wentworth said.

Without the kind of information gathered at sites like this one, effective decisions about how to preserve wooded and natural areas for future generations in the face of development might not be possible, Wentworth said.

"Think about how few places like this remain, between what's been converted to agriculture, plantation forestry and developed for urban residential and commercial use. This kind of site is relatively rare in the landscape and important to preserve," Wentworth said.

According to its Web site, The Carolina Vegetation Survey of The North Carolina Natural Heritage Program is a part of the Office of Conservation and Community Affairs within the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The program inventories, catalogues, and supports conservation of the rarest and the most outstanding elements of the natural diversity of our state. These elements of natural diversity include those plants and animals which are so rare or the natural communities so significant that they merit special consideration as land-use decisions are made.