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Losing the Big Savannah

"I noted only one savannah wild flower, that of the fly-poison, so thoroughly had this wonderful natural garden been destroyed."

B.W. Wells
North Carolina Wild Flower Preservation Society Newsletter
October 1966

Wells hoped that through education and action the Big Savannah would be preserved forever, writing in his 1932 publication, The Natural Gardens of North Carolina, that it should be made into a state park. Throughout his career, he assisted environmental organizations by providing insight, information, and justifications for saving this unique place. However, state and federal agencies found the costs and risks associated with annual burns needed to maintain the savannah too high. Although the original owner was agreeable to selling the land to preservation groups, a series of miscommunications led to inaction, partially because many, including Wells, thought the soil so poor that no one would be able to farm it. However, by the late 1950s, technology had caught up by introducing new machines that could drain the soil, and an enterprising farmer plowed the field in 1959, forever destroying the Big Savannah.

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B. W. Wells (in hat) with a field trip arranged by ecology professor Arthur Cooper on one of the last remaining tracts of the Big Savannah.
1959

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Big Savannah Under Cultivation
1959

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Vegetational map of Big Savannah and environs showing locations of transects

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Aerial Photograph of Big Savannah
1938

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Aerial Photograph of Big Savannah
2003

By examining Wells' original map of the Big Savannah, along with subsequent aerial photography, one can see a steady invasion of farmland. Just ten years after publication of his study, the land to the east is under cultivation. By 2003, the regular patterns of tilled fields are readily apparent.

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