Wetland forests with unique plants and wildlife at Rocky Point are now protected

Eastern Woodrat (Photo: Sturgis McKeever, Georgia Southern University, Bugwood.org Creative Commons License 3.0)

ROCKY POINT, NC (AP) — On a mission to beautify the natural habitats along the North Carolina coast, Janice Allen was thrilled with the effort to protect what she calls “a little wetland gem” by two busy highways in Rocky Point.

Allen, Coastal Land Trust’s director of land protection, is also grateful to land owners and others for working with the organization to preserve them and not lose them to timber or anything else.

“It’s kind of weird because you don’t usually get plant species from the Gulf Coast, coastal plains, mountains, and Piedmont regions, all clustered in a site like this,” she said.

The North Carolina Coastal Land Trust has purchased 32 acres of land in Rocky Point with a rare type of wetland known as wet marl forest, which combines those unique plant species. The property near 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 from a grant program from the North American Wetlands Protection Act for Fish and Wildlife Services.

“We are so grateful that the Coastal Land Trust was willing to take on the preservation of this precious habitat,” said Diane Totman’s son Byron. “Rapid landscape changes, invasive species, logging, and mining have steadily faded into the already limited extent of this unique community. It is hard to overstate the importance of preservation. There are no better hands to leave in overseeing this piece of land than the Coastal Land Trust.” In addition to protecting it, we hope that preserving this land will also help to restore the adjacent lands where wet marl forests once existed.”

It is small in size, but officials have indicated that the property’s preservation values ​​are important. It is located within the larger Rocky Point Marl Forest Natural Heritage Area and is considered an “Exceptionally Important Site” by the NC Natural Heritage Program.

“This wet 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, reports that two of the state’s rarest animals, the eastern rattle and rattlesnake, thrive in the forest.

“For many years, I have taken my ecology students to this site so that we can study the site’s soil, flora and fauna. Permanently protecting this site ensures the continued survival of this unique habitat and assemblage of rare flora and fauna,” Webster stated in a press release.

Eric Poulin, professor emeritus of biology and marine biology at UNC, added that the Wet Mal Forest shows the biodiversity of the area and a rare occurrence where the water level rises above flat limestone.

As homes and businesses continue to develop in Rocky Point, Allen said the wetland environment is not attractive for building, but there could have been a threat to limestone and timber mining, which would affect the area.

According to the researchers, the area also has nutmeg (the northern range of occurrence of this species which has a primary range in the lower Mississippi River Valley), woody dogwood (in one of the two locations where it is found in the state) and thick cover of dwarf palmetto.

If you think about these small, isolated characteristics that evolution surrounds, it can be difficult for some species to be viable over a long period of time, in terms of locomotion,” Allen said. “It makes it even more difficult. But we keep working.”

The area at Rocky Point is not found anywhere else in the world, said Mike Shavell, an ecologist with the NC Natural Heritage Program.

“Of the most important and irreplaceable sites known when I began my career in the early 1980s, almost all have seen a great deal of protection over the years,” Shavalley stated. “Rocky Point is one of the last to see any successful protection.”

Since 1992, the Coastal Land Trust has saved more than 84,000 acres of scenic, recreational, historic, and environmental settings. The area at Rocky Point is one of many conservation projects in Pender County. Some of them in the past are the Abbey Nature Preserve in Scotts Hill with over 60 acres, the 177-acre BW Wells Savannah site north of Burgau, and the Northeast Cape Fear River Nature Preserve with over 700 acres near the Interstate. 40.

“I feel very strong about protecting these kinds of lands everywhere,” Allen said. “The diversity of our landscapes is very important. This is part of our mission, to protect these special places. Not only are rare plants and animals, but we also protect places where people can go out for recreation.”

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