By Bryn Pipes
April 2011: Ten years ago this month, an incredible story unfolded in Appling County when 4,000 acres went up for auction. The land had been carefully managed for generations by the Moody family, and it contained not only huge hardwoods and baldcypress along the Altamaha River but one of the few remaining stands of old-growth longleaf pine in the state.
As expected, there was considerable interest among timber companies in acquiring the land to reap hefty profits from these rare gems. There was also a great deal of interest among conservationists to protect this land and preserve the crucial ecosystems it contained and the endangered species it supported. The two sides were pitted head to head in a financial showdown made even more dramatic by the stipulations of the blind auction format of the sale.
When the bids were unsealed and announced, The Nature Conservancy of Georgia was the winner.
Even 10 years after the fact, you can still feel the disbelief and relief of the property’s staunchest advocates and supporters. Many of them gathered on March 19 at Moody Forest Natural Area 10 miles north of Baxley to celebrate the anniversary of this momentous event. I was lucky enough to also attend and experience this unique preserve myself for the first time. The gathering was held on the site of the old homestead, which is a sight to see in itself. The wooden plank and tin roof house with detached kitchen and surrounding outbuildings sit perched on brick and lighter-stump supports. The Moodys lived in this house without any of our ubiquitous modern conveniences until the 1980s when indoor plumbing and electricity were finally retrofitted into the structures. Huge live oaks and southern magnolias surround the house, providing shade. Magnificent in-bloom Chickasaw plums dotted the surrounding field breaks and woods, their feathery white blossoms adding an almost ghostly contrast to the pale lime green shoots of newly budding leaves. But the real highlight of Moody Forest, and what makes it so special, is its pristine old-growth longleaf pine forest.
An old-growth longleaf pine forest is not quite what you might expect; there are no breathtakingly massive pines to emphasize your first impression of what the term “old-growth” usually brings to mind. Longleaf pine forests in general take a good deal of understanding to fully appreciate. They are very open spaces, not densely populated, with multiple species of trees and undergrowth vegetation. In an established longleaf forest like Moody, the only other large tree you will find is the occasional post or red oak.
The floor of the forest is almost completely covered with wiregrass growing in large circular clumps with long thin blades that gently wave in the breeze. The dark bluish-green leaves of wild indigo dot the forest floor as well. Thin vines of jasmine intricately twine through the branches of any low-growing shrubs and carefully creep up the sides of the pine trunks. In early spring, these vines thrust forth bright yellow trumpet-shaped flowers, providing a dramatic emphasis to the subtle beauty of the scene.
The ecosystem created by the interaction of these plants supports one of the most diverse animal communities found in North America. Included in this list are three of Georgia’s rare species: red-cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoises and eastern indigo snakes. Federally listed as endangered, red-cockaded woodpeckers require longleaf forests, preferably older stands, for their nesting sites. Each nesting cavity can take three years to carve to completion. Gopher tortoises, another high-priority conservation species, prefer longleaf forests in part because of the relatively open nature of the habitat, which means they have fewer roots to deal with in digging their underground burrows. Indigo snakes North America’s largest non-venomous snake, reaching more than 8 feet in length, take advantage of tortoise burrows to make a suitably spacious home for themselves. Indigos are threatened throughout their range.
Evidence of all three of these species is readily found all over Moody Forest Natural Area, in addition to the presence of deer, quail, turkey, owls and a plethora of songbirds.
Visiting Moody Forest is a truly inspiring experience, especially for people like me interested in the protection and restoration of longleaf pine forests. My family owns land on which we are trying to restore longleaf pine forest. We have already put a conservation easement on our property, and we are working with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to carry out regular prescribed burns to aid in its development. Seeing a forest like the one at Moody not only strengthens my commitment to doing all I can to restore my land to longleaf habitat, but it gives me a glimpse of what my land could be if that commitment is strong enough. It is an awesome vision, one that I am proud to share with the Moody family and all of the many other advocates of this crucially important tree and ecosystem.
Bryn Pipes lives in Taylor County. He is an English student at Columbus State University and currently studying abroad at Oxford University in England.
Ten years ago this month, an incredible story unfolded in Appling County when 4,000 acres went up for auction.