Outdoors columnist Dan Geddings: A look at the Sandhills


The open park-like forest stretches away from the road over the rolling hills. Longleaf pine dominates the landscape here. I stop occasionally to look at the vistas and take pictures. Longleaf is my favorite tree. I think it is the most beautiful of all.

The longleaf/wiregrass ecosystem once covered more than 90 million acres across the southeastern United States. Today only scattered patches remain, totaling somewhere between 2 and 4 million acres. Natural fires that burned every two to four years shaped this unique landscape. The fires were caused by lightning and set by Native Americans.

There are drawn-down ponds along the road, on most of the drainages. It is a management technique that promotes aquatic vegetation, favored by wintering waterfowl. Several species of waterfowl use the ponds in the fall and winter to include mallards, black ducks, pintails, green-winged teal, widgeon, ring-necked ducks and hooded mergansers. Wood ducks and Canada geese are found here year-round.

The road that I am on is Wildlife Drive. It is a gently rolling paved road in the heart of Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge encompasses approximately 45,000 acres in northeastern South Carolina. It is an absolute treasure. The federal government purchased the land in 1939 under the provisions of the Resettlement Act. The badly eroded land supported very little wildlife. Efforts began immediately to restore the land to a healthy habitat for plants and animals that historically occurred here. Elevations range from 250 to more than 500 feet above sea level.

Deep sandy soils host an extensive longleaf pine forest. The understory consists mostly of scrub oaks. Wiregrass is the dominant plant in the ground layer. An abundance of rare and uncommon wildlife and plant species are found on the refuge, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, the Pine Barrens tree frog, pixie moss and three species of pitcher plants.

The refuge supports the largest population of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers on service-owned lands and is the second-largest population in South Carolina. The woodpecker serves as an indicator species on the overall health of the longleaf/wiregrass ecosystem. Unlike other woodpeckers, red-cockaded woodpeckers roost and nest in living trees. Older longleaf pines are more likely to have "heart rot," making it easier for the birds to excavate cavities. The refuge supports more than 150 family groups of red-cockaded woodpeckers. The cavity trees are painted with a white band.

An important tool used to manage the forest is prescribed burning. These controlled fires mimic the natural fires that historically burned through the landscape. The fires suppress the growth of hardwood trees and shrubs, creating the open park-like conditions. The charred appearance of burned areas is only temporary, with lush grasses and forbs quickly responding to favorable growing conditions.

Fields and wildlife openings are managed for quail, dove, rabbit, turkey and deer. In the spring, strips within the fields are disked to encourage native plant production. Other areas are periodically mowed or burned. In the fall, cool-season grasses, such as wheat and rye, are planted to provide winter forage.

The refuge is free of charge and is open 365 days a year from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset. The refuge office/ visitor contact station is located on U.S. Highway 1 four miles northeast of McBee.

Across U.S. 1 from the refuge is Sandhills State Forest. The forest encompasses more than 46,000 acres. The land was purchased in 1939 by the federal government and has been managed by the S.C. Forestry Commission. In 1991, ownership was transferred to the state. Sugar Loaf Mountain lies within the forest.

I did not visit the forest on my recent trip, but I will return with my wife, Ginger, for another look at these sandhills.

Email Dan Geddings at cdgeddings@gmail.com.