Nature lovers at the fifth annual Robert Weed Memorial Nature Walk in Marshall Forest on Friday learned that a series of regularly scheduled prescribed burns might be the best way to preserve the historic old-growth forest off Horseleg Creek Road. The forest is the largest virgin, urban forest and second largest nature preserve managed by the Nature Conservancy in Georgia.

Berry College professor Martin Cipollini explained to a group of about 50 forest supporters that the forest attracted attention 50 years ago because of the large stately pines spread across the side of Horseleg Mountain. The various pine species are relatively fire tolerant but efforts to suppress fires over the years have led to very little reproduction and when the huge old pines come down during storms, like the Blizzard of ’93, they are typically being replaced by hardwoods.

While leaning up against a massive shortleaf pine, Cipollini looked at the crowd and asked them if they saw any small, or baby pine trees in the immediate area and the answer was a unanimous “no.”

Cipollini explained that research done by Shorter professor Emma Lewis Lipps 50 years ago showed that almost 10% of the pine-oak forest in Marshall Forest was shortleaf pine, but research done by Cipollini and his students at Berry just 20 years ago projected that in the future, the shortleaf pine will virtually vanish from the forest.

“Pines are dependent on fire,” Cipollini said.

The land was controlled by the Cherokee until their removal when it was acquired by an Augusta family that never moved to Rome. The Marshall family bought the property in the 1870s and owned it until it was deeded to the Nature Conservancy. According to the Conservancy’s website, it is one of the last remnant stands of old-growth forest below the Mason-Dixon Line along the Southern Appalachian corridor.

The forest hosts more than 300 species of plants, including the endangered large-flowered skullcaps, along with 55 different tree species spread across three different plant communities. Cipollini explained that the habitat has changed fairly dramatically over the years.

“Prescribed fire, not wildfire, is something that I know the Nature Conservancy has wanted for a long time, but it’s just a little more tricky to apply here,” Cipollini said.

Considerable attention has been made in recent years to the removal of non-native species like English ivy and Chinese privet which crowd the landscape and obscure many of the native flora.

The Weed Memorial Nature Walk was started five years ago, a few months after Robert Weed’s death, as a means of renewing attention to the virgin forest which is Georgia’s first National Natural Landmark.

Weed’s widow, Mimi Weed said, “Every year there are new faces that haven’t been here before, and that I don’t know,” she said. “I see more families coming out bringing their little ones.”

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