Sandhills Ecology 101:

Good for Golf and Other Happy Accidents

Sandhills Ecology 101

By Jeff Neuman

When Boston industrialist James Walker Tufts bought nearly 6,000 acres of Moore County real estate in 1895, he had no idea he was purchasing land ideally suited for golf.  He may not even have known golf existed.  What he did know is that the arid area sometimes referred to as the Great Carolina Desert was sandy, generally blessed with low humidity, and home to several species of pine.  He couldn’t see a lot of them on his central parcel, because it had been clear-cut and the trees harvested mostly for turpentine.  According to Raymond E. North’s history of Pinehurst, The Pinehurst Story: June 1895–1984, a person could stand at the current location of the Carolina Hotel and see all the way to where the clubhouse now sits, with no trees blocking the view.

The health resort he envisioned was derailed by the discovery that diseases like tuberculosis were contagious, so bringing patients to a common location was hardly a good idea.  But the attributes that inspired the purchase meant fast-draining soil and conditions comparable to the linksland found along the coast of Scotland.  He had inadvertently discovered a perfect location for the home of American golf, leaving only one question: Why was it there?  How did this isolated inland band become the Sandhills in the first place?

The region we know as the Sandhills is a strip that ranges from 10 to 35 miles wide, commencing a bit northwest of Fayetteville and extending diagonally from central North Carolina through the middle of South Carolina and on into eastern Georgia, thinning and becoming intermittent before petering out in central Alabama.

It was formed in the Miocene epoch, roughly 23.03 to 5.33 million years ago. Dr. J. H. Carter III, founder in 1976 of the environmental consulting firm that bears his name, notes that the Atlantic coastline was farther west than it is now, “basically to the base of the Sandhills over near McCain and halfway to Laurinburg and south-southwest from there.”  The sand that became this band of hills – a stark contrast to the flatter coastal plain left behind when the ocean receded – came from erosion off the Piedmonts and was shaped into coastal dunes by the wind, resulting in what geologists call aeolian deposits.  These deposits are what give the Sandhills soil its character.

Not far below the sandy water-permeable layer is a thicker red-orange base that Bob Farren, Pinehurst’s Director of Golf Course Maintenance, refers to as “sand clay.”  Excavators in the 1930s and ’40s would strip away topsoil to reach this clay that could be exported for making bricks; Farren says some of it may have been the source of stonework on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Most of the Sandhills have these clay layers embedded in them, consisting of water-impervious material called kaolin clay.  The water that drains so easily through the surface soil collects on top of these clay layers and then flows laterally along the clay until it hits a side of a hill, notes Carter, “where it emerges to the surface and forms wetlands.  These hillside or even hilltop wetlands are fairly unique, and they then drain down the sides of the hills or sometimes go back underground again and pop out [at] another clay layer and eventually collect in streams at the bottom of the hills.  A lot of folks who have moved here from other states have never experienced being up on the top of the hill and having a wetland in their yard. That’s why we have those, they’re pretty much everywhere if you know what to look for.”

The sandy layer on the ridges generally runs 18 to 24 inches deep; by contrast, in a true desert like the Sahara, the sand can average around 150 meters in depth.  Tom Doak, designing his first golf course in the area (the Pinehurst Resort’s 10th, on the site of a previous course in Aberdeen called The Pit), says, “It’s sandy, but the sand is not as deep and as pure as a few other places I’ve worked.  It does make construction a little more complicated, because you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get into and whether you’ll have to bring in fresh sand to finish a feature.  But I’ve been very spoiled … most architects would kill to work in these soils.”

Farren adds that the mounds of dirt from those earlier excavations make excellent topsoil for golf: “We’ve knocked some of them down and taken the vegetation off of some of them; when it lays exposed, if you take off all that understory, pine straw and all that root mat and leave it exposed for three or four months, you’ll see white sand.  All the organic matter washes away and leaves this white sand – not a brilliant white, but white sand.”

The distinctive environment of the Sandhills favors species that can thrive in its unique conditions; studying those conditions has been a lifelong project for Dr. Carter.  His firm, based in Southern Pines, specializes in protected species surveys, preparation of Biological and Environmental Assessments, wetland delineations, permitting and mitigation, and land management in the Carolinas and the Southeastern United States. He frequently advises developers and land managers, golf courses, quarries, landfills, airports, and water infrastructure projects on dealing with endangered species and wetlands and coordinating with state and federal regulatory agencies.

Carter notes that highly resinous pine trees like the longleaf pine are well-suited to the drier soil, and pond pines are able to establish themselves in the exposed wetland areas.  Longleaf pines are generally long-lived; left on their own, it’s not unusual for one to live 300 years or more (though such specimens are harder to find nowadays because they’re so often cut down or cleared for development).  Native wiregrass helps keep the sand in place and provides fuel for the third critical element — after water and soil — that makes the Sandhills what they are: fire.

“Pretty much all the vegetation — even the vegetation in the wet areas — is adapted to and dependent on the occurrence of fairly frequent fires,” Carter says.  “When I say fairly frequent, I mean not more than three or four years between fires. And if you take the fire out of the system, as it has been done in a lot of areas that are developed, succession starts to replace these species that we like, like the pines and the wiregrasses and things like that.”

Despite the relatively dry environment, the region’s natural fires don’t burn with the widespread intensity of forest fires out west, the flame height is typically low, fueled by the wiregrass at ground level.  Once a longleaf pine has attained a certain size, it’s virtually fireproof under normal conditions, says Carter: “The longleaf has a papery bark in a way, very thin layers on top of each other.  It’s kind of like trying to burn a phone book.”

Wiregrass itself is highly flammable, but recovers quickly: without fire it won’t release its seeds, and Carter notes that you can burn the plant, have a rain shower, and a few hours later it’s ready to burn again.  This all helps the longleaf, which needs bare sand in order for its seeds to germinate successfully; if the forest floor is covered with pine straw or hardwood leaves, the seed will germinate but the roots have nowhere to go.  Even the pond pines depend on fire and are adapted to it: they have what are called serotinous cones, which can stay closed for decades, but once the air temperature reaches 110 to 120 degrees as it does in a fire, about 24 hours later the cones open and drop their seeds.  The delay means that the seeds will enter a favorable environment, with the fire having passed and the area cleared of potential competition for resources.

Studies have underscored the effect that frequent fires have in diversifying the flora – and inevitably the fauna — in the region.  A team of botanists examined an area of horse country at Mile Away Farm that was a longleaf pine and scrub oak stand but hadn’t been burned in decades. The team, says Carter, found 18 or 20 species of plants. Meanwhile over in Fort Bragg, in equal-sized plots that were left to the natural fire cycle, they found more than 100 species of plants and in some plots as much as 120.  “The fire,” Carter concludes, “promotes this incredible diversity of vegetation that is another hallmark of longleaf pine forests and the Sandhills.”

One of Carter’s lifelong interests is the red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW), which has been on the endangered species list since 1970, mostly due to the reduction in its habitat.  The Sandhills provide an ideal environment for the RCW, which is the only species of woodpecker that makes its home exclusively in cavities in living pines. The copious resin produced by longleaf pines keeps the birds safe in those cavities from tree-climbing snakes; the relative lack of ground cover means other predators have nowhere to hide.  The longleaf has very dense wood, so it takes roughly 10 years for the RCW to create a cavity; it can be a multi-generational project to open a space roughly two inches in diameter and as deep as a few stacked coffee mugs.  The RCW will abandon a cavity if other species like bigger birds or squirrels come along and enlarge the entrance, and the tree will eventually heal over if the cavity is not maintained, but Carter says he has seen trees with discernable cavities that have been there for 50 years.

It has taken millions of years to shape the Sandhills as we know them, but only a short time for human intervention to alter them.  With monitoring, management, and mitigation efforts, we may be able to protect this environment that nurtures well-adapted species like longleaf pines, wiregrass, the red-cockaded woodpecker – and even golfers.







Jeff Neuman is a freelance writer and editor based in New York City and Islandmagee, Northern Ireland.  He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Links Magazine, GolfWorld, Private Clubs, and, and edited The Met Golfer Magazine for nine years.  He also edited a slew of books including Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, Davis Love III’s Every Shot I Take, and Lorne Rubenstein’s A Season in Dornoch.

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