INTERVIEW WITH DEBORAH FOWLER
MANAGER OF SANDY PINES PRESERVE IN WENDELL
Deborah Fowler is the Open Space manager for Wake County Parks, Recreation and Open Space. She has worked for over 20 years in park operations/maintenance, environmental education programming, natural and cultural resource management and volunteer initiatives. From 2015-2021, her role included the design and construction of Robertson Millpond Preserve, Turnipseed Nature Preserve and Sandy Pines Preserve. She now manages these three preserves along with 8,700+ acres of open space across Wake County.
Interviewing Deborah Fowler today is Joseph Ragone with the Regency Park Partnership, and a long-time resident of Moore and Wake Counties. Joe, who has visited practically all Wake County Parks and many of our state parks as well, understands and appreciates the importance of preserving not only our natural resources, but our historic sites as well. Joe recently visited this newest of the Wake County Parks in order to prepare for this interview.
In addition to being our newest park,
Sandy Pines Preserve’s 563 acres of preserve of forests
and fields make it the largest single tract of land owned
by Wake County Parks, Recreation and Open Space.
Deborah, I know that Sandy Pines Preserve is just one of three county parks that you are responsible for, and I appreciate your taking the time to tell about Sandy Pines. First Question - Besides being the latest park in the Wake County Park system, what makes Sandy Pines Preserve such a unique park?
Wow, 563 acres seems like a lot of parkland. By comparison, Historic Yates Mill County Park that was the subject of an earlier RPP interview is only about 174 acres.
Yes, this is lot of acres! Sandy Pines Preserve, like our other two nature preserves, is minimally developed with a main focus of giving access to the trails. The preserve has a parking lot and some picnic tables. Visitors should arrive prepared because there are no restrooms or drinking water at the preserve.
Historic Yates Mill County Park, while smaller in acreage, has many more facilities than the preserve, including a visitor center, exhibits, nature and history programming, a large pond, trails and a historic grist mill.
So how is all this land being used?
Sandy Pines offers 6.5 miles of walking and equestrian trails that run through a variety of habitats. Visitors can explore pine forests, mixed hardwood-pine forests, creeks, a pond and many open fields.
The equestrian-friendly nature of the preserve makes it unique. Currently, only the American Tobacco Trail and Umstead State Park offer public riding locations in Wake County.
What about opportunities to observe and enjoy wildlife on a tract this large?
I am glad you asked this question. I am happy to tell you that some of the species that call the preserve home include beavers, white-tailed deer, wood ducks, red-shouldered hawks, indigo buntings, wild turkeys and a variety of frogs, salamanders and reptiles.
Can you tell us why it was decided to purchase this particular parcel for one of your county parks?
This acquisition, as many of our open space parcels, was purchased to protect water quality, natural and cultural resources, scenic landscapes, outdoor recreation opportunities, wildlife corridor connections and large tracts of lands, which are vital for many species’ survival. Through public meetings, we heard from many voices of the equestrian community that there was a need for more places to ride in Wake County.
So, there are more than 6 miles of trails for hiking and riding. For horseback riding, what specific features or amenities does the park offer?
Our equestrian-specific features include pull-through parking for trailers, eye hooks for tying horses, hoof-friendly trails, mounting blocks and benches, and signs and maps at horse height along the trail. And our important “Share the Trail” signage will guide equestrians and hikers on best practices, ensuring a safe experience for everyone.
What about the history of this land, I bet there is a lot of rich and valuable information to share about that?
There certainly is.
Historical records tell us that the Marriott family of Surry County, Virginia, established the land as a homestead and farm around 1785, producing a variety of cash crops and livestock. After emancipation, sharecropping, tenant farming and later timber management sustained the farm until the early 2000s.
Did the Marriot family continue to own the land all of this time?
The farm has been owned by the Procter family of Raleigh since an inheritance in 1880. For more than seven generations, the Marriott-Procter families cultivated and protected this unique property, which eventually became the largest tract of family owned, undeveloped farmland and forest remaining in Wake County.
What about the name “Sandy Pines”? Was there any significance to it?
Yes, the name recognizes the years of managed loblolly pine forests and the history of longleaf pines on the property. Historically, longleaf pines dominated much of the property. There is a longleaf pine stump there that has been estimated to be 231 years old, with other stumps estimated to be 80 to 90 years old.
Many areas were planted with loblolly pine, which was on a renewable harvest schedule from the 1940s until the 1990s, with one area thinned in 2006. You can still see evidence of this forestry history while on the trails.
I remember that the restoration of longleaf pine forests is so important here. What has been done here to further this effort?
Well, in the fall of 2019 and 2021, over 200 longleaf pines were planted in the two fields where the Longleaf Pine Trail runs. The 2019 planting was a partnership effort between the Triangle Land Conservancy, Wake County, NCSU and NC Forest Service. The trees were donated from TLC.
Students from NCSU provided the labor in 2019 and 2021 with preserve staff. NC Forest Service provided tools and expertise on planting.
In the spring of 2022, Wake the Forest nonprofit partnered with preserve staff to purchase and plant 11 taller, older longleaf trees in those same fields to introduce a different age class. Preserve staff hope to increase and restore the acreage of longleaf pine in the preserve over the years.
That is so very good to hear, and before we move on, I also remember that Wake County has developed a
commitment to protect and expand much of its remaining open space and natural areas.
Wake County’s Consolidated Open Space Plan – the first of its kind in
North Carolina – lays out a strategy to protect 30% of Wake County’s
land area as permanent open space. That’s roughly 165,000 acres, or
about 125,000 football fields. The county is currently more than a
quarter of the way to that goal – with 66,000 acres protected. And
Sandy Pines is Wake County Park’s third nature preserve and the latest
step on the county’s path to protecting open space and natural areas.
That is tremendous! What a record of past achievement and goal for the future. Can you describe some of the trails that are in the preserve?
There are seven different marked trails to choose from.
The shortest one at .7 miles is the Longleaf Pond Trail. With
a short trot to a pond, you can fish for smaller sunfish and
see the Longleaf pine restoration area. For more wide open
views and vistas, there is the 2-mile-long Wandering Fields
East trail connecting wide-open fields and a large lowbush
In between, there are the Sandy Pines Trail (1 mile). The Wandering Pines West (1.25 miles), the Easy Gait Trail (0.9 mile) and the Horseshoe Trail (1.6 mile). Each of these also has its own unique features, and you need to visit them to see yourself what these have to offer.
Any amenities along the way?
There are some picnic areas within walking distance to parking area and along the trail, and there are also some benches along the trails. However, there are no restroom facilities or drinking water at the preserve.
Any other features or attractions you want to mention?
Well, you could be our next volunteer for geocaching in the preserve! These are hidden containers of varying sizes are approved by preserve staff and placed for visitor’s exploration and enjoyment. You use your own GPS unit or phone to find these hidden containers and then record your find on the paper log provided in the geocache. If you are interested in putting out a geocache, please visit our website for more details or contact us.
I have heard that there may be a pond for fishing, and I also think a small creek as well. What can you tell us and what restrictions and licensing might there be?
There are a wide variety of small pan fish in the pond, which is accessible from the Longleaf Pine Trail. All NC Freshwater Fishing Regulations apply, and you can get your fishing license online from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission website or at an outdoor supply store or bait shop.
Before we leave you, are there any volunteer opportunities at the preserve?
The preserve does not currently have regular volunteer opportunities but does work with individuals and small groups on a variety of projects. Volunteer projects are dependent on availability and are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.
Thank you for sharing all of this with us and congratulations on your being the manager of this large and unique Wake County preserve In closing, are there any challenges or vision for the future or development plans that you can share with us?
The open space program, which includes the nature preserves, currently has three preserves and over 8,000 acres of open space. With a staff of six full-time and nine part-time staff it is a big job! Much credit goes to our amazing staff, who keep up with our natural and cultural resources as well as outdoor recreation endeavors.
Sandy Pines Preserve is located at 7201 Doc Proctor Rd., Wendell, NC 27591
Phone: 919-604-9326 Email: Naturepreserve@wakegov.com
Hours: April 1 until Aug. 31: 8 a.m.–Sunset, Monday–Sunday
` Sept. 1 until March 31: 8 a.m.–Sunset . Saturdays and Sundays
Sandy Pines Preserve is an ADA accessible location.
The parking lots and trails on site meet ADA criteria.
There are also a number of wheelchair accessible picnic tables near the front entrance.