Norfolk, VA, USA — The helicopter hovers and neatly lowers a half-dozen logs dangling from a line beneath it onto a large stack of wood, then disappears back into the forest about a half-mile away.
Workers in orange hard hats rush in to remove a cable encircling the logs before the helicopter returns in a minute with another load of up to 10,000 pounds and the process starts all over again.
Helicopters are hauling downed trees in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina to help save the swamp’s rare Atlantic white cedar population. In September 2003, Hurricane Isabel leveled 3,600 acres of mature Atlantic white cedar trees among the last significant stands of this species, also known as juniper in 24 hours.
A logging project to clear 1,100 of those acres began in May 2005 and is about half done, refuge officials told reporters Monday. The project, which has gone faster as more equipment has been added, is expected to be complete by the end of the year, with logging under way now in North Carolina and then moving in to the Virginia portion of the swamp.
Removing damaged and dead trees exposes the swamp’s soil to sunlight, allowing cedar seeds in the soil to germinate in as quickly as a few weeks. Seedlings that sprouted this spring are now about the size of a fingernail.
The project also reduces debris, which can be a fire hazard. An estimated 150,000 tons of fallen and dead trees could fuel wildfires if there are lightning strikes.
“There is, I think, a strong possibility that we’re going to put cedar back where cedar was,” refuge forester Bryan Poovey said. “It’s just going to require some help.”
However, it will take decades for trees to grow enough to make the swamp look like it did before Isabel, Poovey said, because many of the toppled trees were 60 to 80 years old. The trees grow close together and have straight trunks that can reach about 100 feet.
International Paper also is playing a role in the restoration. Using seed harvested from the refuge, the company is growing seedlings at a nursery in Georgia that will be planted in the refuge, Poovey said.
The swamp has more than 111,000 acres of forested wetlands, with the 3,100-acre Lake Drummond at the refuge’s center.
Slaves fleeing their owners in the Civil War era used the swamp as a haven.
Private firms logged the grounds, from 18th-century ventures that included George Washington as an investor, into the 1970s.
The swamp became a refuge in 1974. About 75,000 people visited the refuge last year, to hike, bike, watch birds and hunt, said Suzanne C. Baird, the refuge’s manager.
Atlantic white cedar trees once thrived in a narrow band along the Atlantic coastal plain from Maine to Mississippi. Extensive logging, poor forestry practices and draining of wetlands diminished the population to about 2 percent of its historic range, Poovey said.
Until Isabel, the largest remaining stands of mature Atlantic white cedar were in the Dismal Swamp. The swamp has about 12,000 acres with cedar trees but the 3,600 acres felled by Isabel were the only pure cedar stands, Poovey said.
Several species of migratory birds nest in the Atlantic white cedar forests, and some species of rare butterflies and moths also live there.
Carson Helicopters Inc. of Pennsylvania is removing the logs for free in exchange for the right to sell the timber, Baird said.
The lightweight wood is resistant to rot and is used for boat timbers, siding and fence posts. Decomposing wood that can’t otherwise be used is chipped into mulch.
Carson has to remove debris as well as marketable wood, Baird said. Carson also has improved dirt roads in parts of the refuge, grading them and covering them with gravel.
The federal government paid $22,575 to a contractor to do an environmental assessment and $8,825 to a consulting forester. But the government was paid $109,000 when 70 acres were logged by conventional means in 2004.
Clearing by helicopter is more sensitive to the environment than using conventional equipment with monster-truck-sized tires that agitate the spongy, peat-filled soil, Poovey said.
Carson uses trucks with tracks that put less pressure on the ground to go into the woods to retrieve the logs, but the trucks can’t go much beyond a half-mile from the road. That’s where the helicopter comes in.
Workers on the ground have twisted knees and ankles while rushing to hook and unhook the cables, said project manager Bob Smith, who was covered in sweat. On Monday, several of the men were stung by bees.