A day in the life of protectors of Hitchcock Woods
Bennett Tucker doesn't think about protecting the environment just on Earth Day. It's something that's on his mind almost all of the time.
As the superintendent of Hitchcock Woods, Tucker, 31, is responsible for taking care of one of the largest urban forests in the nation.
“I do everything,” he said. “My job description is about a page and a half long, and there is even a miscellaneous category.”
If people get lost while exploring Hitchcock Woods' 2,100 acres and 70 miles of sandy trails, Tucker goes out and finds them.
If a sign falls down, he puts it back up. If a tractor needs routine maintenance, he changes the oil.
“It's a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” Tucker said.
On a cool, sunny Wednesday earlier this month, Tucker's main task involved planting 750 plugs of two native plants: wiregrass and broomsedge bluestem.
Driving a white truck with buckets and boxes of plugs in the back, Tucker headed for the west side of Hitchcock Woods early in the morning. On the way, he kept an eye out for problems.
“I'm doing reconnaissance, looking for what needs to be done where,” Tucker said.
As he passed by the Cathedral Aisle entrance to the woods, Tucker checked the map box. It was empty, so he made a note to bring back a stack of Hitchcock Woods maps later.
Tucker also noticed some young trees that would have to be pruned or cut down.
“They're bent over so much from the February ice storm that they probably never will recover,” he said.
Tucker stopped to point out a fox squirrel that was skittering across Peek-a-Boo Lane and a snapping turtle that was hanging out at the edge of Black Gum Pond. He also paused to chat briefly with two horseback riders.
“People come to Aiken just because of Hitchcock Woods; it is a treasure,” Tucker said. “If steps hadn't been taken back in 1939 to preserve it, this would be just another neighborhood.”
Tucker's destination was a 15-acre tract shaded by tall longleaf pines. It was the site of a deliberately set fire, known as a prescribed burn, last December.
“We do the burns under controlled conditions to improve the health of the forest and to reduce the risk of destructive wildfires by whittling down the amount of fuel (fallen branches and dead leaves) on the ground,” Tucker said.
Even though ferns and wildflowers already were starting to regrow in the burned area, Tucker wanted to plant wiregrass and broomsedge bluestem plugs, to supplement Mother Nature's efforts.
“It's something that will expedite the process,” Tucker said.
Assisting Tucker was Hitchcock Woods Technician Eric Grande.
He used a tool, known as a dibble bar, to make holes in the ground. Tucker followed along behind and placed plugs in the holes.
“It's like looking for Easter eggs,” said Tucker, who sometimes had trouble spotting the little hollows that Grande had made.
The two men worked quickly and switched duties occasionally. They tried to put the plugs in areas where the vegetation recovering from the controlled burn was sparse.
“We want them to be where there will be less competition and more sunlight,” Tucker said.
Later in the day, Tucker and Grande cleared ice storm debris from trails and used parts of the downed trees they removed to repair a horse jump.
“I love working in the forest, I love working outdoors, and I love being able to see the results of my labor,” Tucker said. “It's magical when the plants pop back up after a prescribed burn, and the changes and improvement in the ground cover are neat to see. I enjoy being a steward of nature and helping things along.”
Dede Biles is a reporter for the Aiken Standard.