Protecting the Land and the Longleaf Pine

02 Oct 2022

A scientist for The Nature Conservancy shares his knowledge and love of nature


“A morning spent in the woods is always a good morning,” says Jeff Marcus as he reflects on his early morning walk with photographer John Patota to take photos in Weymouth Woods.

Marcus has the dream job for anyone who loves the outdoors. When he is not working, he enjoys hiking, bird watching, paddling, and anything related to nature. When he is at work, he’s creating a better environment for those of us who share his passion for the outdoors and nature.

As the N.C. longleaf applied scientist for The Nature Conservancy, he is a leader in local and state efforts to promote the maintenance and restoration of the N.C. longleaf pine ecosystem. The Nature Conservancy’s land protection efforts have led to the conservation of over 28,000 acres of significant habitat for longleaf and its associated rare plants and animals in the N.C. Sandhills.

“Conservation is about a love of nature and wildlife and outdoors. By showing the educational value of nature and why we need to preserve it, we hope to win the hearts and minds of the public and show the value of conservation,” Marcus explains.

About the Sandhills, he says, “We really live in a special place. It’s one of the last best places to see and experience the longleaf ecosystem.”

“Fort Bragg with 150,000 acres is among the best longleaf habitat on the planet,” he adds. That area is managed to support required military training as well as to preserve the longleaf ecosystem and protect the habitat for its species and flora.

A global nonprofit, The Nature Conservancy works to create a world where people and nature thrive together. It works to protect land and water, provide food and water sustainably, build healthy cities, and tackle climate change. To improve land conservation and water quality, its staff includes over 400 scientists.

“Land protection is just one piece of conservation work. It’s insufficient by itself,” says Marcus. All the pieces include managing the land properly with controlled burning, controlling invasive species, restoring endangered species, supporting private landowners to manage their land, and encouraging local governments to improve land use planning to ensure new homes and businesses do not degrade our natural resources.  

All these pieces depend on research that Marcus conducts and scientific collaboration with other conservation organizations to gain the public’s support. “All the pieces fit together to support conservation work. And if the public and elected officials don’t care or don’t voice their support for nature, we will never manage to save everything that needs protecting,” he adds.

Instrumental in preparing him for conducting this research is his master’s degree in fisheries and wildlife sciences from N.C. State — “basically a wildlife biology degree,” he says.

He has spent the last 20 years working to improve land conservation in the Sandhills. Before joining The Nature Conservancy, Marcus was a wildlife biologist for 12 years with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission where he helped to develop land protection programs, restore game lands, and improve habitats for quail (sought by recreational hunters) as well as songbirds.

The state’s efforts to improve bird habitats include controlled burnings that also help the longleaf ecosystem. In fact, one unique characteristic of the longleaf is that it needs fire to thrive. Without fire, faster-growing plants shade out longleaf pine seedlings and saplings.

Repeated fires keep woody competitors in check and also promote a diverse ground layer. However, the burns need to be prescribed at specific times to avoid burning seedlings in the growing season.

Marcus and his wife Ellen are also the stewards of the Plant Conservation Program Eastwood Preserve, the former home and property of the late Len and Joyce Tufts. They sold their property 15 years ago to the state to protect their longleaf areas into perpetuity before they passed away. The state has since added more land to the preserve and it now totals 400 acres.

With the field trips of the preserve that Marcus leads, he shares his love for the longleaf and his knowledge of its ecosystem to inspire others to love and protect these resources.

His outreach efforts include giving community presentations. At Given Memorial Library, he explored the beauty and wonder of the longleaf pine forest…from the eyes of a migrating gopher frog — if only all of us could have that imagination and vision.

Of course, the most well-known resident is the red-cockaded woodpecker. “It’s the most famous, but the ecosystem includes several amazing species, such as Bachman’s sparrow, the Carolina gopher frog, and the Southern hognose snake,” Marcus says.

Another species, the buffalo, disappeared long ago with the arrival of Europeans, but the fox squirrel still survives – yes, it’s the one that runs across your path when you are jogging or driving a golf cart.

The flora of the longleaf ecosystem is equally amazing. Perhaps the most distinctive one is the Sandhills lily. “Bruce Sorrie was the first to describe it as a distinct species in the Sandhills. Its scientific name lilium pyrophilum translates as ‘fire-loving lily,’” Marcus explains.

That characteristic of the lily, which blooms for only 10 days in early August with vibrant red, orange, and yellow colors, helps to inform us about the importance of controlled burns to the longleaf ecosystem.

As the population of the Sandhills continues to grow, the value of conservation efforts seems more important than ever. Consider a new housing development being planned in a section of longleaf pines where controlled burns have been taking place. Not only is the habitat lost, but controlled burns become much harder to schedule and conduct on adjacent properties with new residents nearby.

“We’re not opposed to development, but we are concerned about when and where it goes on the landscape,” Marcus says about the views of conservation groups. “We can create a softer footprint and make better choices to keep the natural world intact.”

“However, time is running out. The window of opportunity for protecting land on a meaningful scale is closing,” he adds.

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