In a few months, Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation will clear 100 acres of trees in north Mecklenburg to improve biodiversity in its nature preserves.
It might seem a bit counterintuitive, but natural resources manager Chris Matthews said the trees, which were planted for logging, are hindering a healthy, natural environment.
County commissioners approved the clearing of 100 acres of loblolly pine plantations at Latta Plantation, Cowan's Ford and Rural Hill at their meeting last week. Some pine plantations in the Haymarket Nature Preserve at Mountain Island Lake are also expected to be cleared at a later date.
Matthews expects the project to affect 200 to 300 trees per acre. The county will then sell the timber and use the profit to plant shortleaf pine trees, a disappearing native species in the area. Any money left over will go toward restoring nature preserves around the county, he added.
"[Clear-cut land] makes me cringe, but you've got a long term plan," said County Commissioner Karen Bentley of Lake Norman's District 1 to Park and Recreation representatives last week. Shortly thereafter, the board approved the plan unanimously.
Currently there are 475 acres within the county's nature preserves, 4 percent of which is occupied by both natural and planted loblolly pines.
Most of the loblolly pine plantations that the county will clear were originally planted by Crescent Resources with the intention of logging for a profit, said Matthews.
Loblolly pine is the most widely cultivated timber species in the South. Because it grows rapidly, it is used extensively for lumber and pulpwood to make such items as furniture and paper.
Many of these plantations were created between 1956 and 1983. Since the county acquired them, they have not been managed in a way that makes them conducive for timber production or biodiversity, said Michael Kirschman, division director of nature preserves and natural resources for Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation.
"Our department is not in the business of growing trees and cutting them down. We've got a situation where these pine plantation trees are overcrowded," said Matthews. "We're trying to provide the best habitat we can and trying to ensure for long-term diversity in our nature preserves."
Charlotte is just on the edge of where loblolly pines naturally occur. Eastern North Carolina has vast expanses of the trees. Thus, the county plans to replace the species with shortleaf pines, which are more native to the area, said Christa Rogers, natural resource coordinator.
Where feasible, hardwoods mixed with the pine plantations will be preserved during clearing, said Rogers.
After clearing, the county will burn the land to prevent a resurgence of loblolly pines and will wait a year before planting shortleaf pines.
Matthews said the department will not plant the trees at the same density or in straight rows like before.
"That's not how things naturally occur," he said.
The trees will not likely reach full size for 20 to 30 years, said Rogers.
The county expects to have three package sales of the timber, with each creating $80,000 to $100,000 in revenue. Thirty percent of the proceeds will be used to restore the lands, said Kirschman.
Some of the areas that will be cleared are easily visible from Neck and Sample roads in Huntersville. Kirschman said he hopes to use the project as a way of educating the public about what the nature preserves and natural resources division does.
"It will look bad to the lay person in terms of, 'Wow there used to be trees here and now there's not,'" he said. "But 20 years from now, there are going to be trees there but more different kinds benefiting more species."