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Earth Day!

Commentator Andy Wood talks about small rare birds in honor of Earth Day.

By Andy Wood


Andy Wood

Throughout the coastal plain of North Carolina there are small communities nestled amid stately long leaf pines, the State Tree of North Carolina and a towering plant of historic and cultural significance in its own right. And then there are these little black and white birds that go by the name red-cockaded woodpecker that live amid these same trees. The unassuming woodpeckers, about the size of a bluebird, chatter amongst each other in high pitched and animated manner as they forage for insects secreted beneath the outer layers of pine bark. The woodpeckers also nest in these pines; in fact they are the only woodpeckers that nest solely inside living pine trees.

200 years ago, long leaf pine habitat covered 93 million acres of the southeastern US. Today, long leaf pine habitat has been reduced to less than 3 million acres; a mere 3 percent of its original stature, and with this loss of habitat has come a collateral loss of the unique plants and wildlife that dwell in long leaf pine forests; including the charming red-cockaded woodpecker, which is now an endangered species owing in large part to loss of its natural habitat.

The red-cockaded woodpecker's endangered species status has enabled wildlife managers to enact land use recommendations, including buffers around nest trees to help the woodpecker recover. However, the presence of an endangered species on private land does not prevent owners from developing that land and in many communities partnership agreements between land users and the US Fish and Wildlife service have enabled people and endangered species to coexist very amicably. As example, in many Sand Hills communities around Fort Bragg and Fayetteville, people and woodpeckers cohabitate so well that having red-cockaded woodpeckers in your yard earns you bragging rights with neighbors and visiting bird-lovers that might also be future residents.

As I look around our coastal plain communities, I see continued land-use practices including forest brush removal for real estate speculation and wholesale land clearing for future development. Such practices as these produce a net loss of valuable habitat for birds and other wildlife, but loss of natural habitat is more than just that; it is also the loss of our natural heritage.

Our natural heritage, including forests, swamps, rivers, and out west, mountains and prairies, shape and sustain the cultures that dwell within them. In many ways, our cultural heritage reflects our natural heritage; especially as regards the long leaf pine and the pine tar and lumber industries it supported. But once the pine was removed, those industries all but collapsed.

Development is a thriving industry here today, in large part because Southeastern North Carolina is considered a naturally glorious place, as evidenced by the growing number of people moving here. The unique natural heritage of our region provides us with distinctive character, and as we remove natural places within our community to make way for constructs surrounded by sculpted landscapes, we risk becoming little more than just another, Anyplace, USA.

The red-cockaded woodpecker and other rarities that dwell here with us may be seen as real estate liabilities, but I believe visionary planning will serve us better if we view interesting little birds and other wildlife, along with unique plants and the wondrous habitats that support them, as valuable assets and integral elements of sustainable economic opportunity.