By Tiffany Whitfield

Old Dominion University Biological Sciences Assistant Professor Taylor Sloey and several other ODU faculty members have been awarded a $350,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) Longleaf Stewardship Program. Principal investigator Sloey, along with ODU co-principal investigators Nick Flanders, manager of Blackwater Ecological Preserve; Assistant Professor Erik Yando; Professor Eric Walters; and a team of multi-agency interdisciplinary longleaf pine experts will use the grant to help restore more than 5,000 acres of longleaf pine habitat throughout Virginia, including ODU’s Blackwater Ecological Preserve in Zuni.

The preserve was historically part of an extensive longleaf pine habitat that covered 93 million acres. However, longleaf pine habitat has been drastically reduced, posing a risk to dozens of threatened and endangered species. With this NFWF grant, ODU scientists and their partners will be able to restore longleaf pine habitat in one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the United States.

The grant will support work by ODU, The Nature Conservancy, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources for two years starting in January 2024. All partners have pledged matching funds to maximize the success of the project.  

“I hope this serves as a springboard for future capacity to conduct research in this system, and it’s important here in Virginia because we’re at the northernmost range limit of threatened longleaf pine habitat,” Sloey said.

The funding will increase the longleaf pine habitat in southeastern Virginia through plantings, prescribed burning and forestry management, as well as landowner outreach and education. The project will implement prescribed burning on 3,900 acres, plant 470 acres of longleaf pine, restore 220 acres of habitat and harvest 50,000 longleaf cones, increasing the availability of locally sourced longleaf pine seedlings adapted to local conditions.  

Brian van Eerden, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia pinelands program said, “With a rapidly changing climate staring at us, we need to push as hard and as fast as we can to restore longleaf pine habitat – one of the most resilient forest systems of the South and a harbor of incredible biodiversity. The Nature Conservancy and other conservation partners are grateful for ODU’s leadership to secure major funding to advance longleaf forest conservation work across Southeast Virginia.”

Threatened and endangered species, including numerous flowering plants, mammals such as the fox squirrel and birds such as the red-cockaded woodpecker and Northern bobwhite, depend on fire-maintained longleaf pine habitat like that found in the Blackwater Ecological Preserve.

Walters is excited about the opportunities this grant provides.

“It is a tremendous boon to ODU to see the importance of longleaf at Blackwater Ecological Preserve recognized nationally,” he said. “This grant cements the importance of ODU, and the legacy of (Professor Emeritus) Lytton Musselman, to continue the important conservation work on longleaf pine in Virginia.”

Walters has served with Musselman on the ODU Blackwater Ecological Preserve oversight committee since coming to ODU in 2011.

Flanders is eager to see the grant help restore this historical area in Virginia.

"For years, the ecological restoration community in Virginia has looked to ODU's Blackwater Ecological Preserve as an example of a functional, diverse longleaf pine ecosystem at the northern edge of its range,” he said. “This grant represents the next chapter in this conservation success story, with funding acquired by a team of ODU researchers now available for the management activities required to restore longleaf pine communities on many more suitable acres across its historical range in Virginia."   

Funding from the grant will go toward public education and outreach to landowners who may have longleaf pine conservation habitats. Another portion of funding will aid students who may be interested in getting training in fire ecology through conducting fire maintenance of these systems and prescribed burning. Flanders will take the lead on this training.

ODU faculty are also encouraged to incorporate the Blackwater Ecological Preserve into their courses to allow students to take field trips and experience this habitat.

“This work will restore and protect an excellent resource to the Department of Biological Sciences for a wide variety of classes and research, including study of plants, birds, ticks and more,” said ODU Biological Sciences Chair and Professor Holly Gaff.

“This grant will showcase to students and the community the value of multiple groups working together to enhance an ecosystem that was almost lost in Virginia,” Yando, added.

ODU’s Blackwater Ecological Preserve is part of the Virginia Natural Area Preserve System, which is managed by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).

As a partner on the grant, DCR will expand its longleaf pine restoration efforts and begin to reintroduce longleaf at Dendron Swamp Natural Area Preserve in Sussex County. The 635-acre Dendron Swamp preserve, which includes bald cypress-tupelo swamps, is located on the southern side of the Blackwater River’s western reach.

“Dendron Swamp Natural Area Preserve was protected primarily for the natural heritage resources found in the bottomland forest,” said Rebecca Wilson, longleaf pine restoration specialist for the Virginia Natural Heritage Program at DCR.

The deep sandy soils of the uplands are well suited to longleaf pine restoration efforts. “We’re excited for this opportunity to expand an ecosystem that once spanned over a million acres in southeast Virginia,” Wilson said. “And bringing fire back to this landscape will not only benefit natural resources but will create a more resilient forest for the future.”

“I’m super proud of the amount of conservation and restoration work that will be able to be performed because of this grant,” Sloey said. “Our hope is for this project to bolster future collaborations between ODU and the many conservation partners involved in the Virginia Longleaf Pine Cooperators Group, even beyond the life of this grant.”