Pilot Mountain tries new method to improve forest

Sassafras Ridge at Pilot Mountain State Park had become so overgrown that only a single sun-loving sassafras tree could be found recently in the immediate vicinity, which features a TRACKS trail for kids’ exploration and education.

Wild berry plants appear on the forest floor after mulch treatment.
Wild berry plants appear on the forest floor after mulch treatment.

Decades of fire suppression on the mountain is largely to blame, having created an understory of flammable thicket and leaf litter susceptible to wildfires. The park set a goal of reducing this wildfire fuel to preserve canopy trees, remove smaller diameter trees and create conditions to favor native grasses, wildflowers and young pines and oaks. In the past few years, prescribed burns have been introduced in the park, but natural resource managers found another tool for their forestry toolbox.

With the help of Friends of State Parks and Friends of Suratown Mountains, the park purchased a forestry mulcher – a rubber-tracked machine on a mini excavator that turns the small-diameter, mid-story plants into mulch in winter months. This leaves canopy trees intact but allows sunshine to reach the forest floor. After a single growing season, low-growing black huckleberry and blueberry plants appeared – an important food source for wildlife.

Before mulching, the ridge had a tangle of underbrush and leaf litter.
Before mulching, the ridge had a tangle of underbrush and leaf litter.

Alongside the natural benefit to the forest, the program becomes a teaching tool on the Sassafras TRACK Trail.

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