Wetland Forest With Unique Plants, Wildlife Now Protected

ROCKY POINT, N.C. (AP) — With a mission to the beauty of natural habitats along North Carolina’s 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 conserve it and not losing its unique for timber or something else.

“It’s kind of quirky because you usually don’t 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 purchased 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 near the intersection of Interstate 40 and N.C. 210 was purchased from landowners Diane Toothman, Sheryl Shelby and Elizabeth Hunley. Funding for the sale was secured from a grant program from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services North American Wetlands Conservation Act.

“We are incredibly thankful 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 steadily chipped away at the already limited range of this unique community. It is difficult to overstate the importance of its preservation. There are no better hands in which to leave the stewardship of this parcel than the Coastal Land Trust. In addition to its protection, our hope is that the conservation of this land may also help seed the restoration of adjacent lands where wet marl forest once existed.”

It’s small in size, but officials pointed out that conservation values of the property are significant. It lies 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 mal forest property was near the top of our Top 40 list due to 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, thrive in the forest.

“For many years, I took my ecology students to this site so we could study the site’s soil, flora, and fauna. Permanently protecting this site ensures that this unique habitat, and its assemblage of rare plants and animals, will continue to survive,” Webster stated in a news release.

Eric Bolen, UNCW professor emeritus of biology and marine biology, added that Wet Mal Forest shows the region’s biodiversity and a rare occurrence where a high-water table is over flat limestone.

As home and business development continues in Rocky Point, Allen said the wetland environment is not attractive for construction, but a threat would have been possible for limestone mining and timber, which would impact 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), roughleaf dogwood (at one of the two sites in which it is found in state) and a thick cover of dwarf palmetto.

If you think about these isolated little properties that are surrounded by development, it may be harder for some of the species to be viable over a long period of time, as far as movement,” Allen said. “It makes it a little more challenging. But we’re continuing to work.”

Mike Schafale, an ecologist with the NC Natural Heritage Program, said the area in Rocky Point occurs 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 stated. “Rocky Point is one of the last to see any protection success.”

Since 1992, the Coastal Land Trust has saved more than 84,000 acres of places with scenic, recreational, historic and ecological value. The area in Rocky point is one of several conservation projects in Pender County. Some of the ones in the past are the Abbey Nature Preserve in Scotts Hill with more than 60 acres, the 177-acres B.W. Wells Savannah site north of Burgaw, and a nature preserve on the Northeast Cape Fear River with more than 700 acres near Interstate 40.

“I feel strong about protecting these types of lands all over,” Allen said. “The diversity of our landscapes is very important. That’s part of our mission, to protect these special places. Not just the rare plants and animals, but we also protect places for people to get out for recreation.”