At The North Carolina Arboretum, we are fortunate to be located in of the most botanically diverse regions in America – possessing almost every native azalea species from the U.S., hundreds of native and non-native trees, and countless other flowers, shrubs and plants. For me, it’s a blessing to look out of my office window every day and see this beautiful property outlined with stunning vistas of the Bent Creek Experimental Forest. Knowing that this view is protected and that the forest surrounding our 434-acre property will advance forest health here and elsewhere is humbling.

While we are fortunate to have this wonderful botanical playground right outside our back door, more than a century ago, this was not the case. Like many places in western North Carolina in the early 20th century, the Bent Creek area had been greatly altered by agriculture, logging and homesteads. When I first learned this, I was baffled! How could this bountiful forest full of trees, plants and wildlife been so bare? To know that the tall standing pines that provide me shade during my afternoon walks were once tiny stubs is extremely hard to imagine. In honor of this Friday’s Arbor Day, I thought it would be nice to take a look back in time and learn more about the history and evolution of this beautiful area.

Way Back When

The first known inhabitants of the Bent Creek basin date back 8,000 years during the early Archaic period. In fact, the Arboretum contains an archeological site on its property from 300 B.C. Around 500 B.C. it is believed that the Cherokee occupied two large campsites near the creek, until European settlers began to move into the area around the late 1700s. BentCreek_loggingBy 1900, the entire area had been logged – about a quarter of it was cultivated or turned into pasture – and more than 100 homes and 20 businesses were created. Between 1900 and 1909, George Vanderbilt acquired the Bent Creek basin and its adjacent lands as part of his grand project for the Biltmore Estate.

After his death in 1914, Vanderbilt’s wife Edith sold much of the land to the United States government, including the Bent Creek basin, and it would later become part of the Pisgah National Forest. In 1925, the U.S. Forest Service set aside 1,000 acres of Bent Creek for research by the Appalachian Forest Experiment Station and officially established the Bent Creek Experimental Forest. Ten years later, 5,200 acres were added to the Experimental Forest.

Research, Research, Research

BentCreek_ressearchAfter its establishment in 1925, much of the work centered on rehabilitating the land that had suffered from years of abuse from poor farming practices, overgrazing, exploitive logging and frequent burning. In 1930, one of the first clear-cuts in the Southern Appalachians was designed to regenerate and study a site that had been high-graded. Much of the silvicultural research – the practice of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health and quality of forests to meet diverse needs and values – was suspended during World War II, and field studies were maintained on a custodial basis. Over the next few decades, the research emphasis would change from large-scale tests to smaller, more data-intensive collections. In the 1960s, long-term studies started on the growth and yield of yellow poplar stands, the regeneration of northern red oak on good quality sites, and the indirect estimation of suite quality from soil-site relationships.

From Clear Cut to Full Forest

Today, the Bent Creek Experimental Forest is the oldest federal experimental forest east of the Mississippi river. It encompasses nearly 6,000 acres within the Pisgah National Forest, and long-term and current research projects are conducted to help provide land managers with science-based information and methods to meet their forest management and restoration goals. Demonstration areas and research studies provide a hands-on way to see the results of different forest management practices and deliver new research findings to land managers, landowners, researchers, students and the general public.

Beyond being a site for research and education, Bent Creek is now used by thousands of people for recreational hiking and biking. The U.S. Forest Service – and the Arboretum – continue to work hard to maintain and sustain its beauty and biodiversity. This Arbor Day, I encourage you to think back on this once empty forest and remember how your efforts and contributions will affect our natural world for others to enjoy in the years to come.

Photo credit: USDA National Forest Service.