Restoration work at Orton Plantation reaches two milestones

Rice fields, endangered birds have home at Orton

rstradling@newsobserver.comNovember 29, 2012 

— Raleigh native Louis Moore Bacon marked two milestones Thursday in his effort to restore and preserve the natural and cultural landscapes of this sprawling, 287-year-old plantation he bought two years ago.

Bacon recently received the permits he needs to restore 320 acres of antebellum-era rice fields at Orton, and he signed an agreement with state wildlife officials establishing the plantation as a “safe harbor” for endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers.

Orton, which covers about 8,500 acres on the west side of the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, is the latest conservation project for Bacon, a billionaire hedge-fund manager who has preserved land in Colorado, Florida, the Bahamas and New York. His connections to Orton run deeper, though: He is a direct descendent, on his mother’s side, of “King” Roger Moore, the man who established the plantation and built the rice fields in 1725.

“Working to restore and preserve is something I’ve always been passionate about,” Bacon said Thursday. “This project is more a heartfelt one than an intellectual one.”

Bacon, 55, was joined at Orton on Thursday by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Daniel Ashe. As the two stood on a bank overlooking some of the still-fallow rice fields and the river beyond, Ashe praised Bacon’s vision and commitment as a private landowner working with government to nurture and protect important natural areas, and said he hoped others would follow his example.

“This is the kind of influence that really radiates,” Ashe said.

For decades, Orton Plantation’s white mansion, formal gardens and moss-draped live oaks had been a tourist attraction, the setting for countless weddings and a backdrop for movies and TV shows. Bacon bought the property in 2010, closed it to the public and set about restoring the rice fields and thousands of acres of longleaf pine forest, the natural home to red-cockaded woodpeckers.

Bacon, whose primary home is on Long Island, N.Y., paid $45 million for the property and will only say that he is spending a “significant amount” to restore the forests and rice fields, as well as research the plantation’s history and renovate the gardens.

Change in the woods

As you drive down N.C. 133 toward Southport, there are no signs marking Bacon’s property, but the change in the woods that line the road is unmistakable. Dark, thick forest clogged with underbrush gives way to what looks like a grassy savanna randomly dotted with tall pines.

These are the early stages of a restored longleaf pine forest, which dominated the coastal plain when the first Europeans arrived, but are now relatively rare. Of the 90 million acres that once covered the southeastern United States, only about 3 percent remain, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

And of those remaining forests, only about 10 percent have the grasses and shrubs that make up a natural longleaf pine savanna, said Bill Palmer of the Tall Timbers Research Station in Florida, which advises landowners like Bacon about restoring longleaf habitat.

That’s largely because to remain healthy a longleaf pine forest needs to burn every few years to regenerate the savanna and keep other species from taking hold. What’s bad for the forest is bad for the animals that depend on it, including the woodpecker.

“That really is the demise of the birds, the lack of fire,” said Palmer, speaking Thursday at one of four red-cockaded woodpecker colonies at Orton.

Woodpecker colonies

Bacon is reintroducing regular controlled burns at Orton, restoring the savanna and maintaining the open pine canopies where the woodpeckers hollow out cavities in the trunks of living trees. Palmer expects that Orton will support 20 to 30 woodpecker colonies, of three to five birds each, within 15 years.

Restoration of the rice fields has awaited state and federal wetlands permits, as well as a permit to reinforce the dike that keeps the salty Cape Fear from inundating the freshwater rice fields. With those now in hand, Dillon Epp, the Orton property manager, hopes to get the fields ready to grow rice within two years, more than 80 years after the last commercial rice harvest at Orton.

The Moore family established their rice fields in the marshes that surrounded the high ground that Roger Moore chose for his house. Slaves built the dike and turned the wetlands into fields that could be drained to plant rice in the spring, and then carefully flooded with fresh water from man-made Orton Lake as the rice grew during the summer and into the fall.

Over the years, erosion ate away at the ribbon of marsh that protected the dikes, and then began eating away at the dikes themselves. Epp said steel sheets will be sunk deep into the base of the dikes, with big rocks on the channel to break the waves.

Epp likened the work to restoring an old house, with surprises and setbacks likely, especially given that these fields and the gravity-fed system that controls the freshwater levels are centuries old.

Bacon donations

Earlier this year, Bacon donated conservation easements on ranches he owns in Colorado totaling nearly 177,000 acres. It was the largest donation ever given to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bacon said Thursday that someday he also will donate the rights to develop Orton, to ensure that the restoration work will endure when he is gone. He has said he’d like to see the plantation named a National Historic Landmark, joining such places as the Biltmore Estate, Duke Homestead and the USS North Carolina.

But Bacon doesn’t have plans to reopen Orton to the public the way it was when the previous owners ran it as a business. Instead, he plans to invite groups involved in land conservation, horticulture, agriculture and wildlife, as well as his neighbors, to see and learn from the landscapes he is creating here.

Stradling: 919-829-4739

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