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Shell’s Covert: The ‘Best Use of the Land’

I won’t mention any company names or exact locations, but this is a true story, and one that I hope illustrates some of the dilemmas faced by agencies and those of us trying to recover habitats and species. I surely do not have every fact, but here is the gist of it.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s a large corporate outfit purchased about 150,000 acres of coastal plain wetlands in the east. This was back before “swamp buster” and provisions of law that prevent the ditching and draining of wetlands today. The company set about clearing, ditching and draining their holdings, which for centuries before their acquisition had been hardwood and pine swampland. It may have been one of the last great areas of such land in the Southeast.

The company’s goal was to make this land into productive farm land. I have been told that at one point they had over 100 bulldozers and various large pieces of equipment working full time on the project. But once they got about 5,000 acres into it they realized that such a proposition was a money pit. They subsequently sold the land and, long story short, it eventually came under ownership of the Nature Conservancy and ultimately the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is now a National Wildlife Refuge.

During this process of ditching, draining and filling wetlands, the company managed to create some of the best quail habitat the East has ever seen. You can imagine with thousands of acres of freshly disturbed soil, and long windrows grown up in pokeweed, blackberry and various other quail friendly cover, that this 5,000 acres produced quail hunting rarely seen on such a scale off of certified quail plantations.

Of course, this was at the cost of some of the best wood duck, cane brake rattlesnake, and marsh rabbit habitat the world has ever seen. I was fortunate to have done my graduate work on this refuge back in the mid-90s. I talked to some of the old quail hunters who remembered hunting the lands back when the company owned it. They pined for those days and part of my heart went out to them.

But I also enjoyed immensely all the varied wildlife I was blessed to encounter in the surrounding swamps and pocosins. As much as I loved quail, I was glad that the entire 150,000 acres had not been converted. It was one of the few places in my life that I felt remained wild, where the sky was still darkened by migrating waterfowl at dusk, where bobcats bawled in the distance and black bears were almost as common as opossums.

As managers of public lands, we have to decide how a piece of land is managed. And we have to do this knowing that there are multiple user groups that expect us to manage for their needs. Thus it is an impossible task at times to try to keep everyone happy. Something we try to do is to manage the land for its best wildlife uses. Not every tract of land is amenable to quail management. And in truth, single species management is rarely the best goal. What we try to do is manage for the ecosystems that are most aligned with the ecosystem that should be present on that land. If we purchase a tract of upland that has a long history of farming and openness, it makes sense to continue early-succession habitat management on it. Likewise, uplands purchased with large stands of loblolly, or other pine types, are readily amenable to thinning, and prescribed burning that is so beneficial to quail and a multitude of other species. But when we purchase lands that historically were highly valuable swamps or wetlands, even if they have had a history of being ditched, drained and farmed, the highest use for that land is to try to convert it back to what it was meant to be.

We had a recent case where we bought a tract of land, and just prior to our acquiring it, it had been clear-cut (which in and of itself is not bad) by the owner to glean their income from it before sale. The first few years we owned it, it had a good quail population, but as time passed, we began reclaiming it to wetlands and converting it back to Atlantic White Cedar which is a rare and declining ecosystem. We also managed it for the endangered canebrake rattle snake, and other species needing similar habitats. Those who had hunted quail on it during those first years we owned it were upset by the loss of quail cover.

I bring this case up to illustrate that there are many species in decline just like our beloved bobwhite quail. Quite a few of them have populations in far worse shape than quail. Even though we have a quail recovery initiative, that does not imply or justify managing every acre we own for quail. I know our agency and our partners are intensively managing lands for a variety of species. We are often caught in the lag time between acquiring land and getting enough staff to manage those lands. Over time we continue to work to improve our ability to manage lands to their highest uses. I only ask that our constituents know our intent is good, if not always immediately evident, and over time our goal is to do what is best for the land and species meant to inhabit it.

March 16, 2016

Marc Puckett

Photo by Meghan Marchetti, VDWR

Marc Puckett is a Small Game Project Leader with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR).

Marc has worked with VDWR for 25+ years. He currently serves as the small game project co-leader. He was involved in several quail studies, including for his master’s degree at NCSU. He served his country for four years in the US Army’s Airborne Infantry. Marc resides with his family on a farm in central Virginia.