Longleaf pine gets second chance at Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary

4:20 p.m Tuesday, July 11, 2017 Travel
Shawn Benedict, manager of the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary in East Texas, looks at a cluster of needles at the end of a branch of a longleaf pine tree. Part of the preserve’s purpose is to help the longleaf pine rebound. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

The young longleaf pines that populate the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary look vaguely like Cousin Itt from the old television show “The Addams Family.”

The trees’ slender branches all wear pine-needle pompadours, and they’re the stars of this Nature Conservancy preserve, set aside in 1977 to conserve and protect the diversity of this part of East Texas.

A 90-million acre swath of longleaf pines once stretched across the Southeast United States, from Florida to Texas. The area was heavily logged at the turn of the century, though, and most were harvested for use as lumber, turpentine and shipbuilding. By 1930, nearly all the virgin timber was gone. Non-native species like slash pine and loblolly pine were introduced, and today less than 3 percent of the longleaf forest remains.

The preserve is working hard to help the longleaf pine, which grows tall and can live as long as 400 years, rebound.

“That’s where we really concentrate our work here,” says preserve manager Shawn Benedict, waving his hands to indicate the shaggy-topped, widely spaced pines. “This is what East Texas is supposed to look like.”

The preserve, which is open to the public for hiking, photography and bird-watching, once belonged to the Temple family, whose history in forest operations in East Texas dates to the 1800s.

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In 1977, Time Inc. and Temple-Eastex Inc. donated 2,138 acres to the Nature Conservancy of Texas to create the sanctuary, with the goal of protecting and sustaining native species. Over the years, several smaller tracts were added. In 1994, Temple-Inland donated more acreage, doubling the size of the preserve with a conservation easement that limits development. The whole project, including the preserve and adjoining easement, now covers 5,654 acres.

“This is an area where you will see a variety of life in a short distance — you’ll see roadrunners, then a few feet away you’ll see more wet forest and plants typical of the Appalachian area,” says Wendy Ledbetter, forest program manager for the Nature Conservancy in Texas. “There’s a lot of diversity, and that’s why a lot of people are interested in this area.”

Walk through the preserve and you’ll find bogs and pinelands, swamps, sandy uplands and magnolia forests. That diversity draws all kinds of plant and animal life.

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More than 700 species grow here, including prickly pear cactus and yuccas, pines, four globally endangered species including the Texas trailing phlox, and a dozen uncommon species, including the white firewheel and carnivorous purple bladderwort. The preserve lands are part of the upper loop of the Coastal Birding Trail, too, and are home to the Bachman’s sparrow, a state threatened species, and the brown-headed nuthatch.

Preserve managers use prescribed fire to manage the property, igniting sections every 18 months or so to select for longleaf pine, which can survive a burn. Other non-native species die off in the periodic blazes.

Experts have shared what they learned here to help restore portions of the nearby Big Thicket National Preserve, which spans more than 104,000 acres. The preserve also hosts education events for local schools.

More than 6 miles of trails weave through the preserve, and the public can hike or bird-watch between sunrise and sunset daily for free. Village Creek cuts through preserve for more than 8 miles (and continues through the Big Thicket, making a 21-mile trip possible), and local vendors rent canoes and kayaks. Fishing is also permitted. Camping is not allowed, but paddlers can pitch tents at Village Creek State Park, about 15 minutes away.

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