Friday, February 7, 2014

Bull Run Mountain and the Shortleaf Pine

Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata) is an adaptable, adventurous tree, equally at home in the sandy dune forests of the New Jersey Pine Barrens as it is on the wind-swept quartzite cliffs on Virginia's Bull Run Mountains. It has a large geographic range that reaches south to Florida and west to Kansas and here in the Mid-Atlantic it reaches its northern limits in Pennsylvania and New York. Wherever it is found this tree reflects the landscape in which it grows: tall and stately in rich forest loam or muscular and sculptural where other trees would be challenged to grow in deep cold, high heat, lack of moisture, or persistent wind.

Large thick plates of red-orange bark protect the Shortleaf Pine from fire.  

Like an old friend, I encounter the shortleaf pine often in my travels. I've come to know it best in the Appalachians, roots firmly embedded in the exposed cliffs and overlooks of my favorite mountain trails. Shortleaf pine dominates exposed ridges and it defines several unique pine-heath and pine-oak communities.

The Bull Run Range is the first 'wrinkle' of mountains a traveler coming out of Washington D.C. will cross on the way to Front Royal VA, the northern terminus town of the beautiful Shenandoah National Park. The Appalachian Mountains run a crumpled line from Georgia to the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec, the result of continental collisions millions of year ago. The Shenandoah, Blue Ridge, South Mountain Complex, and the Bull Run Range are all local components of the Appalachian Mountains, representing just a few of the hundred or so distinct ranges that comprise this ancient folded, sinuous mountain landscape.

Looking west from the Bull Run Mountains to Shenandoah National Park's northern terminus at Front Royal VA.

My encounter with the shortleaf pine this past week happened in the recently established Bull Run Mountain Natural Area in Northern Virginia. The day was forecast to be in the upper 40s so frozen trails would thaw later in the day. I arrived before 8am to meet up with a trail crew composed of members of the Potomac AT Club and the Mid-Atlantic Hiking Club. I wanted to volunteer a few early hours with the group and then spend the remainder of the day exploring the natural area, hoping the thaw would happen later rather than sooner.

We worked to close off a much abused cut-off trail; a trail that in wet weather was starting to gully and wash out. Lazy hikers cutting through the woods to bypass a series of switchbacks are disregarding many posted warnings to respect the natural area and to stay on established trails. Even though just established, this new hiking area is experiencing large crowds of visitors and their dogs (most unleashed) from the suburbs of D.C. and the physical pummeling of thousands of people upon these trails was evident everywhere. The ranger I met at the trailhead on my hike out described suburban growth and development as the natural area's greatest threat. The property managers, Virginia Outdoors Foundation, will soon implement new day use regulations including a maximum visitor limit and fee system.

Growing among the quartzite boulders at the cliff edge.  Bull Run Mountain Natural Area VA.

Once out on the still-frozen path with trail work behind me, I enjoyed a fairly solitary experience. A five mile circuit included the long west facing quartzite ridge where shortleaf pine occupied every nook and cranny between the boulders and outcrops. A gentle breeze from the north swept across the summit and the trees seemed to sing in response. I sat on a ledge overlooking the valley sketching the trees and rock formations, with a raven croaking nearby.  Turkey and black vultures wheeled on the updraft, very nearly eye-level and within in a stone's throw of where I sat.

Note the distinctive 'tooth' of each seed scale of the shortleaf pinecone.

Having taken in the view and finished a few rough sketches, I headed down the Ridge Trail. It was still before noon, but the path had begun to thaw and mud was shimmering ahead as the trail dipped into the valley, away from the heights. Signs of a fire were everywhere. I learned later that an illegal campfire had started what would become a six acre summit fire that blew into the saddle of the ridge. The shortleaf appeared fine, evolved to resist fires with its thick scaly bark, but the thin-skinned trees like beech and rhododendron stood dead or dying.  One flame-charred branches, the shortleaf cones were open and dispersing seeds. In a few years a crop of young shortleaf saplings will cover this burnt-over area.

A tongue of an earlier fire on the flank of the mountain created the perfect seedbed for these young pines.

As I hiked down the valley the trail became a river of mud, difficult to traverse. Amazingly the number of people coming up the trail formed a human river heading to the overlooks.  Several side trails had been closed off to visitors due to mud, funneling everyone into the one sloppy trail that led upward. I stopped to visit with the ranger at the trailhead who looked a little exasperated at the number of people streaming through the kiosk gate. "This is the biggest problem, the sheer number of people," he said, "The rules will change soon enough, but I wonder if it'll be enough to really protect this beautiful area." I said that the mountain had seen its share of change and degradation: deforestation, quarrying operations, fires, even bloody, violent battles during the Civil War. The ranger agreed and seemed hopeful that the new regulations would be a start.

Banded quartzite tops the summit of the western flank of Bull Run Mountain.

The Bull Run Conservancy provides educational opportunities on the property.

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation manages over 2000 acres designated as the Bull Run Mountain Natural Area VOF functions as the state land conservancy by helping private landowners secure protective easements on their properties.

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