Trees at least a thousand years old could become part of new state park

Kayakers paddle among ancient bald cypresses in 2016 in Three Sisters slough along the Black River, an area that could become part of a proposed N.C. state park.
Kayakers paddle among ancient bald cypresses in 2016 in Three Sisters slough along the Black River, an area that could become part of a proposed N.C. state park. Andrew Kornylak

The thousand-plus-year-old trees along the Black River – the oldest known trees in the East -- would form the centerpiece of a new state park in southeastern North Carolina under legislation in the General Assembly.

The proposed park would embrace ancient bald cypresses that thrive in the Black’s languid, tea-colored water. One of the trees has been dated to 364 AD, which means the 1,650-year-old cypress was growing when Emperor Valentinian I ruled the Roman Empire.

The weathered but stout trees have been protected for more than 20 years by the N.C. Nature Conservancy, which has been acquiring land and conservation easements along the river. The non-profit conservancy owns 15,814 acres along the Black and holds conservation easements on another 1,195 acres, according to spokesperson Debbie Crane.

Some of the oldest trees stand in Three Sisters slough, a swamp forest adjoining the Black, accessible only by canoes and kayaks. Three Sisters lies upstream of N.C. 11-53 near Atkinson in Pender County.

No one knew of the trees’ advanced ages until 1985, when researchers from the University of Arkansas came to the Black to take core samples from old-growth trees to recreate local climate history. The growth rings added up to centuries. The Arkansas researchers were surprised to discover that many trees were 1,000 years old and older.

The trees likely were never logged because of their senescence. When 19th Century timber cruisers came through, they found the old trees hollow – and not worth harvesting.

The legislation, introduced by Reps. William Brisson of Duplin and Brenden Jones of Tabor City and others, would authorize the Division of Parks to purchase and accept donations of land as well as tap into money sources such as the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. The legislation notes that the Black River contains “some of the most ancient trees in the world with immense scientific values....”

The legislation also would authorize three state natural areas: The scenic Bob’s Pocket in the McDowell County mountains; the archeologically rich Salmon Creek area in Bertie County; and Warwick Mill Bay in Robeson County, a breeding site for wood storks and other waterbirds. The bill, which passed the House in April, is now in the Senate. If authorized, Black River would become the state’s newest and 42nd park.

Carol Tingley, state parks deputy director, said the study area for Black River includes Sampson, Pender and Bladen counties, a distance of about 20 miles. She said the linear park could extend through all three or two of the counties. The park would cover about 2,500 acres, most of which would be Nature Conservancy land; initial land acquisition would cost $1 million to $2 million, she said. It would be two to three years at the earliest before the park could open.

Some residents are opposed. “We do have people who are not in favor of a park,” Tingley said, noting they have concerns about traffic and increased public activities.

The conservancy’s Crane said the group previously has both sold and donated its land for state parks. She said the conservancy wouldn’t transfer all its acreage, just a couple of thousand acres.

I’ve visited the majestic cypresses in Three Sisters on multiple canoe trips since 1990. Paddlers must veer off the open channel of the Black and, depending on water levels, push and pry their way through a labyrinth of cypress knees, stumps and vines.

There, they can behold an aged forest of giants, with buttressed, bulging trunks covered with moss, their towering crowns shorn off by countless storms. Here stands the Methuselah tree, named for the Biblical man said to have lived to the age of 969, the bald cypress that researchers determined was living in 364 AD. The venerable tree has marked events such as the Norman invasion of England in 1066, the voyages of Columbus to America beginning in 1492 and the two world wars of the 20th Century. And it lives on.