Perspectives Online

Making a Comeback - Dr. Eric Hinesley works to restore the Atlantic White Cedar and to replant wildfire-ravaged acres in eastern North Carolina. By Suzanne Stanard

The Atlantic White Cedar has had its population decimated by exploitative logging and natural disasters.
Photo by Andrew Joslin

Eric Hinesley holds a plank of Atlantic White Cedar, carving off a couple of layers to release its distinctive fragrance. The board seems to weigh hardly anything, with beautifully symmetric grain and a musky aroma that hints of the swampy forest in which it grew.

A professor in the Department of Horticultural Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Hinesley has spent many years researching – and trying to save – Atlantic White Cedar. The population of white cedar in North Carolina has shrunk to less than 5 percent of what it once was.

Dr. Eric Hinesley (Top) tends to white cedar seedlings at the College’s Horticultural Field Lab. Hinesley is also part of efforts to rehabilitate 42,000 eastern N.C. acres burned during June wildfires (bottom).
Top Photo by Marc Hall
Bottom Photo Courtesy Eric Hinesley
A tall, slender evergreen conifer, Atlantic White Cedar grows in the swamps of eastern North Carolina. Historically, it has been important to the economy and lore of that region because its lumber is highly prized for boats, decoys, siding and shingling. White cedar is lightweight, easy to machine and extremely rot-resistant. It also provides habitat for some species of wildlife that thrive in wetlands.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, huge lumber companies logged the dense peat swamp forests of eastern North Carolina. Their greatest prize was Atlantic White Cedar, which was worth four times as much as any other tree. Over time, exploitive logging and natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires, along with drainage of swamplands for agriculture, decimated the population of this special tree.

Where tens of thousands of acres once stood, only a few thousand acres still remain. Recently, Hurricane Isabel was especially devastating; it blew down about 2,000 acres of mature white cedar forest in the Great Dismal Swamp.

“There is tremendous interest in restoring white cedar, from industry, academia, private landowners, national wildlife refuges, and various federal and state forest service and natural resource organizations,” Hinesley says. Weyerhaeuser Corp. was an early leader in restoration efforts in North Carolina and pioneered vegetative propagation from stem cuttings, he says. Since 1990 there have been workshops and symposia every few years to focus on issues related to white cedar.

Hinesley originally set out to research the Atlantic White Cedar as a potential Christmas tree variety. “But we discovered very quickly that it is not a good Christmas tree because it doesn’t last long after it’s cut,” he says.

This white cedar seedling (top) can grow to about 25 feet. The white cedar is an evergreen conifer that grows in the state’s eastern swamps (middle) and provides habitat for wetland species. Hinesley (bottom) gives away plant seedlings to promote restoration of the tree.
Photos by Marc Hall
Years ago, he says, people put up Christmas trees the day before or even the day of the holiday, taking it down just a day or two later. “But now people routinely buy their trees at Thanksgiving and display them into January, so the trees need to keep fresh for at least five weeks,” Hinesley says.

Atlantic White Cedar is “very precocious,” he says, entering its reproductive stage early and exploding with unsightly cones when it is fertilized, instead of foliage and branches, as is customary in the culture of Christmas trees.

After realizing that white cedar was not suitable as a Christmas tree, Hinesley continued with research to restore the tree. Most of his fieldwork is at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Washington County. Included in that area is a 320-acre block of white cedar established in 1995. Today the trees stand about 25 feet tall.

While attending white cedar conferences in the 1990s, Hinesley says he found it strange that, despite the high level of interest in white cedar, few plants were available to people who might want to grow the trees. At that time, there was extensive effort, including Hinesley’s research, devoted to propagating white cedar from stem cuttings. Eventually, he and North Carolina Forest Service nurserymen abandoned that approach and shifted to production of seedlings from seed.

Hinesley grows a limited number of white cedar seedlings at the College’s Horticultural Field Lab. He gives these plants away free of charge to promote restoration of white cedar in North and South Carolina.

“I made it a personal goal to determine how to grow good-quality containerized plants because it was my hope that the Forest Service would be able to start growing white cedar as a crop,” Hinesley says. “This would enable the people of North Carolina to get seedlings for restoration projects, as they can for many other tree species.”

These efforts have been successful. “Currently, there is good demand for Atlantic White Cedar seedlings, thanks in part to several large restoration projects in central and eastern North Carolina,” Hinesley says. “Most of the plants are bought by contract planters who put them on private land. If cost-sharing plans are available from the government, it is more economical for landowners to purchase trees.”

Most recently, Hinesley has joined scientists and representatives of state and national wildlife agencies to rehabilitate the 42,000 acres burned during June wildfires in eastern North Carolina. Fortunately, the blaze was several miles east of most of the white cedar research and restoration plots at the Pocosin Lakes site.

“It is a challenge, and at the same time, an opportunity,” he says. “We need to figure out what to plant, how much needs to be planted and where to plant it. The fire had a huge impact on the landscape.

“It is important to remember, however, that fire is an integral part of that ecosystem, and historically has played a major role in determining the types of plants present as well as their abundance and distribution.”

Will the Atlantic White Cedar make a comeback? If Hinesley has his way, it’s just a matter of time.

“Progress has been made with white cedar in the last 25 years because people with vision saw a problem and took steps to address it,” he says. “Much of that which has been accomplished is a result of collaboration and financial support among industries, universities, government agencies, environmental groups, other organizations and citizens who want to see white cedar remain in North Carolina and elsewhere as an important component of the swamp forests where it historically occurred. This has been a true team effort.”