Controlled burn planned Feb. 22 at Windsor Castle Park longleaf pine forest

Published 4:39 pm Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Smithfield residents who see smoke coming from Windsor Castle Park on Thursday needn’t worry.

The Virginia chapter of The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental group, has scheduled a controlled burn between noon and 1 p.m. on Feb. 22 at the corner of Jericho Road and Cedar Street where the oldest of Smithfield’s longleaf pines are planted.

“Longleaf pines are nearly immune to fire,” said Henry McBurney, a volunteer with the Virginia Master Naturalists’ Historic Southside chapter who helped plant the trees. “That is the reason they became the predominant tree species on approximately 90 million acres across southeastern USA in 1607.”

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According to the Virginia Department of Forestry, longleaf pines are native to southeastern Virginia and were used extensively in shipbuilding in colonial times, resulting in centuries of over-harvesting. According to the U.S. Forest Service, less than 3 million acres remained as of 2002.

Smithfield’s Town Council has, since 2014, worked to reintroduce the trees, which can live over 300 years, to Windsor Castle Park. The Virginia Master NaturalistsHistoric Southside chapter joined forces with the Windsor Castle Park Foundation in 2019 to plant 104 longleaf pines provided to the town at no cost by the Virginia Department of Forestry at the request of the Nature Conservancy. By the end of 2022 there were over 3,000 longleaf pines spanning nearly 10 acres in the park.

The town’s plan for the trees calls for periodic controlled burns to remove the undergrowth once the seedlings reach a fire-resistant state. The burns are intended to create an environment that favors longleaf pines over competitors and encourage there return of native flora.

“The benefit of prescribed burns is to help nature develop the understory species specific to longleaf pine savannas,” McBurney said. The stated objective of the town regarding re-introducing longleaf pines in WCP is to develop a longleaf pine savanna in an urban setting. Longleaf pine savannas have a unique ecosystem.”