Staff Writer

Environmentally beneficial prescribed burns are under way in woodlands at Orton and Pleasant Oaks plantations, with more controlled fires planned through May.

Plans call for burns on about 6,000 acres on the two plantation properties, depending on weather, between now and May 31.

Approximately 3,500 acres will be mosaic-style burns on Orton property, continuing the restoration process begun there four years ago.

Another 2,500 acres will be an initial burn on the Pleasant Oaks property, where fire ecology restoration is just beginning, officials said.

“Longleaf pine forests require active management, including prescribed burning, and we want to be sure the surrounding community is aware,” said Ann Colley, executive director and vice president of the Orton Foundation, the local affiliate of Mr. Bacon’s Moore Charitable Foundation. “This work is critical to the restoration of the native ecosystem and we know it will be a windfall for the flora and fauna of southeastern North Carolina.”

A direct descendant of the original 18th century landholder Roger Moore, Louis Bacon, owner of Orton Plantation Holdings, LLC, the property owner, is the driving force behind these efforts. Orton Plantation Holdings, LLC purchased the plantation home and tracts of surrounding forest in November 2010, and Mr. Bacon initiated environmental restoration efforts soon after.

This new round of fire ecology practices is being overseen locally by Orton property manager Dillon Epp.

Natural fires were once common throughout the region, but the last century of fire suppression has negatively impacted the longleaf pine and other native species’ natural habitat and cycles, Epp said. As a result, longleaf pine forests that once covered 90-million acres in the Southeast today total approximately three-million acres.

Epp said that routine prescribed burning also reduces uncontrolled and dangerous fires, thereby protecting the surrounding community while strengthening the natural ecosystem.

“Bringing longleaf back to North Carolina involves a concerted effort that includes the removing of unwanted trees and shrubs, planting young seedlings, and then managing the forest with continued fire,” Epp said. “With that work, the seedlings, which are as small as a piece of grass will grow to maturity in a century.”

Bacon’s long-term vision is to have, with recent contiguous land acquisitions, 11,000 acres restored to a premium diverse habitat by 2017. Approximately 7,000 acres are expected to become permanently managed longleaf pine habitat through these current efforts.

“Reestablishment of an appropriate fire regime is the single most important action to facilitate landscape-scale biodiversity restoration and the recovery of threatened and endangered species (like the red-cockaded woodpecker) in these landscapes,” Epp said. “This initial restoration will result in healthy longleaf pine forests that can then be maintained less intensively, primarily with growing-season controlled burning.”

The Orton Foundation is in concert with The Nature Conservancy’s regional work on prescribed burns and longleaf pine restoration across three conservation areas in the Coastal Plain of North Carolina.

“Orton Plantation continues to be a leader in restoring longleaf pine habitat in the southeastern North Carolina,” said Dan Ryan, Director of the Nature Conservancy’s N.C. Southeast Coastal Plain program. “Their concerted efforts, as well as the scale in which they are achieving results, have benefits for wildlife and water quality well beyond their property lines.”

Motorists who use N.C. 133 can expect to see smoke along their route while the burns take place. Road signage will be placed warning of the possibility of low-visibility due to smoke.

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