02/15/04 — Flooded land revived as outdoor classroom for forestry students

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Flooded land revived as outdoor classroom for forestry students

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on February 15, 2004 2:03 AM

Four years after the Neuse River spilled over its banks and destroyed a neighborhood south of Goldsboro, Wayne Community College students have begun bringing the land back to life.

Forestry students are converting 31 acres off Bryan Boulevard into a pine forest. Classes planted more than 3,000 loblolly pine seedlings Friday on six acres.

The project has become an outdoor classroom for the college, said instructor Jim Slye. Forestry students will be able to see the pines through their harvest, about 12 to 13 years from now. They will be able to replant indefinitely; the college has a 99-year lease.

"This is a great opportunity for us," Slye said.

As happy as the college was to get the land, Wayne County was glad to see it go.

"If the college had not had an interest, we would have probably have had to plant it with trees ourselves," said Connie Price, the county's planning director.

The federal and state governments bought hundreds of homes that flooded after Hurricanes Fran and Floyd. Ownership of more than 200 parcels was transferred to the county with the conditions that it could not build on them, it could not sell them, and it could not even give them away.

What it could do is try to keep the land cleared and free of weeds, litter and illegally dumped garbage. In other words, the county lost taxpayers and gained a lot of new work.

But the county has found a new life for some sites. Some were leased to adjoining property owners for them to maintain and use for gardening, farming or just add on to their yards. Some flat parcels may yet be made into ballfields. Mount Olive College instructors have worked with one 15- to 20-acre parcel off N.C. 111 South to convert it to wetlands.

The land off Bryan Boulevard, north of Thompson Lane, had once been home to nearly 20 families. Buyouts began after Hurricane Fran flooded houses in 1996 and continued after Floyd brought the water up even higher.

Following the buyouts, Price tried to find something to do with the land other than mow it and patrol it. The forestry program seemed to be a good fit, he said. It requires little maintenance and none on the county's part; it creates habitat areas for wildlife; and it gives the college a demonstration site.

In the field, instructor Jim Slye saw another advantage. "Stormwater that comes off forested land will be cleaner. That will help with the water quality in the river."

Don't forget air quality, as in fresh air, the kind you don't get in the classroom.

Sixteen students milled around the land Friday morning as Slye told them what a great day it was. "Ninety degrees and sunny -- that is no good," he said. "It wouldn't be good if the ground was all frozen, either."

Planting seedlings should only be done when it's between 35 and 75 degrees, winds less than 10 miles per hour, less than 50 percent humidity and with the soil damp, not sloppy wet, he said. "This is ideal."

If students felt any qualms about planting a few hundred trees each, they didn't say. But the bulk of the land had really been done in December when 20 acres were planted.

Those seedlings looked a little battered and bruised Friday.

"If we had a choice, we wouldn't have had that ice storm hit them like it did," said David Sturgill, the college's other forestry instructor.

But green needles still surface among brown ones, a sign of the loblolly's hearty nature.

"Loblolly pine is very forgiving," Slye said. "If you plant it a little too deep, if you plant it a little shallow, it's probably going to make it anyhow."

The vast majority of the tree farm is loblolly pines, the primary wood grown and harvested in eastern North Carolina. Five acres are planted with longleaf pine, which typically grows at a slightly slower rate than loblolly. One acre includes various types of hardwoods.

Classes will probably be out on the farm at least once a month, Sturgill said. They will be checking on tree growth, tending to their health, and removing invading plants like Bermuda and ornamental grasses.

As the trees are harvested, the college will make some money that Slye hopes will be reinvested in the forestry program, he said.

Wayne Community College has one of only four forestry programs in the N.C. Community College System. Students come from as far away as Wake, Johnston, Lenoir and Onslow counties and even southern parts of Virginia. Graduates typically take jobs with the N.C. Division of Forest Resources; with lumber companies or their suppliers, either timber or managing timberlands; or in other environmental fields.