NORFOLK, VIRGINIA (The Virginian-Pilot) - A new state forest, the first one in southeast Virginia, was christened Monday in a remote but ecologically rich tangle of pine trees and makeshift gravel roads about an hour's drive from downtown Norfolk.
Big Woods State Forest and Wildlife Management Area encompasses more than 4,400 acres and cost $6.4 million. It adjoins another 3,200 acres owned by The Nature Conservancy, an international environmental group, in what officials described as one of the largest protected blocks of southern pine forests left in Virginia.
"There's a lot of us here today who've waited a long time for this," said David Whitehurst, an administrator with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, at a ceremony in the middle of the new sanctuary, about six miles southwest of Wakefield.
The conservancy bought the land from International Paper in 2006, then transferred it to the state last summer when enough money was available. The state has been preparing roads, trails and signs since then in anticipation of ecotourists and nature lovers.
There were cookies and drinks at Monday's ceremony, but officials cautioned attendees not to drink too much: Portable toilets had not yet arrived from Richmond.
"But there is plenty of privacy in the woods," Whitehurst quipped.
The state intends to build on the work of the conservancy next door at its Piney Grove Preserve, where Virginia's rarest bird, the red-cockaded woodpecker, has been nurtured back from near-extinction.
The game department will place artificial nests for the woodpeckers in mature pine trees so the birds might continue their comeback, said Bob Duncan, the department's director. The population has grown from fewer than a dozen birds to nearly 70 since the conservancy started its recovery program.
Duncan said aiding the woodpecker will also help the bobwhite quail, another troubled species that likes the grassy understory of old pine woods.
In addition, the state Department of Forestry intends to plant longleaf pines on its portion of the woods in the hope of reviving the trees. Where southeast Virginia once boasted 1 million acres of longleaf pine, the number today is about 1 percent of that, officials said.
"In Virginia, we don't count the number of acres that are left, we count the number of trees still standing," said Brian Van Eerden, a scientist and resource manager with The Nature Conservancy.
State foresters also want to diversify the new Big Woods forest, which under International Paper had become dominated by loblolly pines, which grew quickly and were cut down and made into paper products.
Dennis Gaston, state forester for eastern Virginia, said plans include planting more hardwoods, especially along stream beds, to benefit water quality and return the forest to a semblance of its former self.
The new sanctuary also should benefit the nearby Nottoway River, which the city of Norfolk taps for some of its drinking water. Having a well-managed state forest, officials said, can only help to protect the integrity of the river.
Big Woods becomes the 21st state forest in Virginia and the 39th wildlife management area. During a tour Monday, wildlife experts talked about its many inhabitants, including fox, bobcat, coyote, wild turkey, deer and rabbit.
Under terms with local hunt clubs, the sanctuary will remain open to some hunting, including the use of dogs. And, as with all state forests, commercial timbering will be allowed under periodic contracts with private buyers.
Not all amenities have been added to Big Woods, and officials still are working on public access strategies and permit requirements. Horseback riding will be allowed, as well as hiking, bicycling and nature photography.
Copyright 2016 The Virginian-Pilot
Updated 1599 days ago Article ID# 1231450