INTERFACE IS A GOOD CONCEPT
Winter field trips to observe nature in near-freezing weather with no rain or snow to make it interesting can be uninspiring. A recent trip, however, was different from the norm.
Noteworthy topography, a diversity of trees, and occasional sightings of birds and mammals can make a field trip interesting. Knowing something about geology helps one understand the land features. For me, having a botanist around to identify trees is useful. A good pair of binoculars is also advisable.
I was fortunate on this trip to be with Harry Shealy, biology professor at the University of South Carolina Aiken, a botanist with knowledge of the area's geology. We didn't encounter any thrilling flora or fauna. In fact, our only wildlife encounter was trying to guess what those little birds were in the tops of leafless trees. Nonetheless our field trip was remarkable because we were traveling in a 2,100-acre wild forest that is surrounded by urban and suburban communities.
The forest is known as Hitchcock Woods. The city that borders it is Aiken, S.C. Such a forest-urban complex is a fast-vanishing commodity in southeastern communities. Compass magazine, published by the Southern Research Station of the USDA Forest Service in Asheville, N.C., recently provided descriptions of a variety of "wildland-urban" situations. The one most closely fitting the Aiken scene is called an "interface island," described as areas of "undeveloped land that are left as cities grow together and create remnant forests." Hitchcock Woods does not quite qualify because Aiken itself has surrounded the forest, but few places like it exist. Aiken is almost a century ahead of most urban complexes in preserving the natural landscape.
Although Hitchcock Woods may function like an interface island, its origin is different from the happenstance of most areas that remain undeveloped because urbanization hasn't reached them. In 1939 the Thomas Hitchcock family bequeathed the majority of this magnificent tract of more than three square miles of undeveloped Coastal Plain to the people of Aiken. These woods, now surrounded by a city, "may well be the largest privately owned urban forest in the nation" according to Doug Rabold, executive director of the Hitchcock Woods Foundation. For comparison, New York's Central Park with its many natural woods is only 843 acres.
The mission of the foundation includes protecting and preserving the woods "in a natural ecologically healthy state," as well as maintaining "traditional equestrian and pedestrian uses." Embedded in the mission is an important emphasis on fostering "education and research on the history and resources of the Woods." The fact that private donations rather than taxes support the Hitchcock Woods ecosystem makes the forest even more distinctive.
Why does a forest need to be "supported"? Three reasons come immediately to mind: (1) trails for hikers and, in Aiken, horseback riders must be maintained; (2) in most southeastern forested areas near housing, a prescribed burning management plan is essential to prevent out-of-control forest fires; (3) maintaining an emergency response system in case of accidents is necessary.
Because of the mix of habitats in this mostly undisturbed forest, Harry was able to show me longleaf pine wiregrass communities, bottomland hardwood forests, and mountain laurel. An unusual topographical feature that winds through the woods is known as Sand River. This sandy-bottomed "creek" is dry except after rains. In warmer seasons visitors to the woods might see a hognose snake or racerunner lizard, get a fleeting glimpse of a fox, or find a box turtle ambling across a trail. Woodland birds are there year-round.
communities in the Southeast are striving to maintain the natural integrity
of their region while meeting demands for urbanization, agriculture, and
industry. Aiken may have an advantage because of Hitchcock Woods, but
any community can develop plans to preserve what is left of its natural
heritage. If you are from such a community and visit Aiken, take a walk
(no bicycles or motorized vehicles are allowed) in Hitchcock Woods for
inspiration. Check out their Web site, HitchcockWoods.org for more information.
If you come in the winter, bring your binoculars so you can identify those
little birds in the trees.