When we picture the Piedmont region of North Carolina today, many of us envision forests dominated by pine or smaller hardwoods. However, two of North Carolina’s historic natural ecosystems have all but disappeared by today's 21st century: the old-growth, bottomland forest and the Piedmont prairie from which the region earned its name.
“I would have liked to see the original land under High Rock Lake,” Mike Baranski told Geitner Simmons for the Salisbury Post, “I imagine the forest there would have been huge and spectacular.” Trees would have been “gigantic, maybe four, five, six feet in diameter.” Instead of pines, which historically made up a very small percentage of forests, the ecosystems were full of “oaks, cottonwoods, sycamores and ashes.” Though certain old-growth forests still live, like in Boone’s Cave State Park in Davidson County, they have become rare.
What changed? Simply, people. When European settlers cut trees to create farmland, the old-growth hardwoods disappeared. Later, when many of these farms were abandoned, fast growing pioneer species (such as the aforementioned pines) replaced the cleared fields and created the forests we see today. As a result, most of the hardwoods growing between the pines are still “young,” and have not had the time to gain the gargantuan old-growth proportions.
People have also altered the environmental conditions that once made the Piedmont Prairie thrive. In the 18th century, settlers and visitors could travel miles and miles over continuous prairie, alive with wildflowers, birds, and animals that made the long grass habitats their home. As we moved into the 1900s, fire suppression became the norm. Without periodic fire, the “forest slowly crept onto the grasslands,” ousting the quails, elk, and bison that depended on the prairie for food and shelter.
Today, the Triangle Land Conservancy is working towards restoring both of these disappearing ecosystems. Through our network of nature preserves forest tracts are protected from logging, thus allowing hardwoods to grow and age without risk of cutting. In addition, our scheduled prescribed burns provide the controlled fire necessary to rejuvenate this essential ecosystem.