The Natural Georgia Series: The Fire Forest
Longleaf Pine-Wiregrass Ecosystem
In less than an hour, with permission and a guide, it is possible to see what are arguably two of the finest examples of old-growth longleaf pine forest in the world. Together, the Wade Tract and Greenwood Plantation are home to approximately 700 acres of this precious forest resource-a relatively small amount of acreage tucked in the southwestern corner of Georgia in Thomas County. "Forest" can be a misleading term when it is used to describe remaining tracts of old-growth longleaf pine trees like these. The lands more closely resemble savannas or parklands featuring a diverse ground cover of grasses and herbs, widely spaced longleaf pine trees, a sparse understory of deciduous, broad-leaved plants, and occasional wetland depressions.
These two tracts, combined with approximately 300 to 350 acres in Appling County and 1,482 acres spread across six or seven large quail-hunting plantations in the Thomasville area, make up the sum total of what is left of old-growth longleaf pine forest in Georgia. It's shocking to realize that the ecosystem that once covered almost two-thirds of the state has been reduced to small, isolated stands of old growth.
What may be even more surprising is that Georgia has bragging rights when it comes to old-growth longleaf pine forest. Of the old growth remaining in the forest's historic nine-state range, almost 30 percent is in Georgia. Researchers estimate that when Europeans arrived in the Southeast, the longleaf pine ecosystem covered approximately 92 million acres from Virginia south along the Atlantic coast and west to the Gulf coast including eastern Texas. In 1995, that total regional acreage had declined to less than 3 million. Of the longleaf that is left, approximately 8,856 acres is old growth and 2,530 of those acres are in Georgia. The only state with more old-growth longleaf forest is Florida, which has more than 4,940 acres on Eglin Air Force Base alone. Virginia, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Texas have none.
The Wade Tract has been under a conservation easement with Tall Timbers Research Station since 1979, Greenwood Plantation belongs to a family foundation that is currently investigating the possibility of turning over management of it to a conservation organization, and the old-growth longleaf pine in Appling County (known as the Moody Tract) is being acquired by The Nature Conservancy of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
While the future seems somewhat certain for many of the oldest trees on these tracts-ranging in age from 200 to 500 years old-they are not the only longleaf pines in Georgia. Second- and third-growth forests are sprinkled throughout the state, primarily in South Georgia. A large stand, approximately 100,000 acres can be found in southeast Georgia on Fort Stewart. Most trees there are 60 to 80 years old, but there are relict trees as old as 100 to 150 years.
While Fort Stewart's forest is being burned regularly and otherwise managed for longleaf pine, many tracts on private land are not protected from harvesting. According to a 1998 survey by The Nature Conservancy of Georgia there are approximately 415,000 acres of longleaf pine in Georgia, with the majority of it found on private lands. While longleaf pines on public lands are generally protected from harvesting and managed for aesthetic and ecological values, trees on private land often must be harvested for the landowner to make a profit. While some are on large, private quail-hunting reserves managed for longleaf pine-wiregrass because it's prime habitat for the game birds, most private longleaf pine holdings are valued economically. Landowners reap economic benefits by harvesting the trees, and longleaf pines are often not replanted because of their long maturation process (50 years). The timber industry has historically recommended faster-growing species like slash and loblolly pine. Without landowner incentives and education, Georgia's longleaf pines on private land will continue to disappear, leaving the majority of the remaining longleaf pines as fragmented stands on public lands.
These numbers prove that the longleaf pine- wiregrass ecosystem is a rare thing in Georgia. Not only is old growth limited, but the relatively small number of second- and third-growth forests are also in jeopardy. Conservationists, including landowners, researchers, and land managers, agree that ensuring the future of this ecosystem means there must be a conservation effort and a restoration effort. Not only must Georgians save what little forest is remaining, but also more longleaf pine trees must be planted and wiregrass and other components of the ground cover must be brought back. Only then can the wildlife that call this habitat home have a secure future.
At the Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference in 1991, Mickey Webb, president of Webb Forestry Consultants which manages land primarily in southern Louisiana and Mississippi and works to reforest lands in longleaf, used his experience to describe the typical small, private, non-industrial landowner this way: 50 to 60 years old, nearing retirement or retired, owners of 40 to 80 acres, and people who are employed as factory workers, farmers, or small business people. He believes there are great opportunities to work with these landowners to restore longleaf pine because their primary interest is not economics. Webb says, "Their goals first are aesthetics and recreation. Second is a heritage to pass down, and pass down better than they received it. Third is timber production."
Cody Laird is a landowner whose priorities match up with the landowners Webb describes. Laird is 65 years old and retired and lives in Atlanta, and he and his sister inherited 2,500-acre Oakridge Farms in Worth County from his father in 1961. Several years ago Laird says he began to learn more about longleaf pines and their fire tolerance and the associated ground cover. It led him to look at his land in a new way and to embark on an effort to restore the ecosystem to its original areas on the property. There are approximately 232 acres of existing longleaf, which Laird plans to increase to approximately 1,650 acres. His plan includes gradually thinning and replacing slash pine with longleaf, planting agricultural fields with longleaf, restoring the natural ground cover where it was destroyed by agriculture, providing a sustainable income from timber harvest, and protecting and improving wildlife habitat.
Laird says, "I'm restoring longleaf because it makes sense. It's aesthetically beautiful, and we use our land as a family gathering place. We don't want it clear-cut. We just want to harvest a percentage of the timber each year." He is also excited about restoration because it allows him to achieve his management goals-including improved quail habitat-with lower maintenance costs. Once he begins to restore the ground cover, he can burn the land to control hardwoods instead of spending money on fertilizer, seed, fuel, plowing, planting, mowing, and other artificial ways to increase quail populations.
Management costs and the economics of forestry are considerations for Laird as they are for virtually all private landowners considering longleaf pine for their property. Landowners need and want to know what it costs to manage longleaf, but more importantly, they want to know whether or not they can make money managing longleaf. The answer, according to Rhett Johnson, co-director of the Longleaf Alliance is yes, but not more money than you can make growing slash or loblolly pine on a short rotation. He says landowners have to understand values other than economic ones-aesthetics, conservation, wildlife, etc.-in order to manage a longleaf pine forest. Immediate benefits may be hard to quantify, so a landowner must see the long-term value of the trees.
Johnson says, "Planting longleaf is like buying blue-chip stocks. The short-term gain may not be as good, but the long-term gain is. Longleaf offers landowners less risk: You don't have to worry about fire destroying the tress or pine beetles infesting a stand because longleaf is largely tolerant of the beetles. And it offers market flexibility. For example, the pulp wood market is terrible right now, but if you're locked into growing short-rotation pines, thinning the trees becomes mandatory. With longleaf, you just hold onto the trees while the market is bad. Sometimes it's difficult to put a dollar figure on benefits like these, but they are real."
Longleaf does have quantitative values. Its wood is heavier than that of other southern pines so when wood is bought on a weight basis (and it almost always is) more money is paid for the longleaf than for the same volume of other pines. According to Timbermart South, an organization that surveys timber sales, in the third quarter of 2000 the sawtimber price for longleaf pine was approximately $623 per 1,000 board feet, the price for the same volume of slash pine was $607, and for loblolly, it was $599.
Longleaf products include high-quality, straight-grained dimensional lumber and strong, durable poles, products that bring landowners top dollar in the marketplace. The beauty of longleaf pine translates into demand for use in flooring and paneling, and its strength makes it a preferred choice by manufacturers of structural glue-laminated beams and timber bridge components. Its high quality has more to do with its value than its rarity.
The trees take time to grow, though. According to Johnson, the long-term value of a longleaf pine forest investment is maximized if the trees are allowed to grow into poles, often thought to be optimal in rotations of approximately 55 years on most sites. Johnson says if a mature stand contains 5,000 board feet of pine timber per acre, it can be conservatively assumed that a longleaf stand would contain 66 percent poles, a slash stand 12 percent poles, and a loblolly stand 5 percent poles. Using estimates from Timbermart South, that means the longleaf stand's total value would be $3,438 per acre, the slash stand's would be $3,093 per acre, and the loblolly stand's $3,018 per acre.
Growing longleaf pine and reaping these financial benefits requires a landowner who is patient, sees the value of the long-term investment, and is willing to forego seeing a return on that investment in his lifetime. Johnson says, "If you're interested in a 15-year investment, longleaf probably isn't a good choice for you.
"Our perception is that forest landowners don't look at their land and say 'I can make eight percent on loblolly and seven and one-half on longleaf, so I'm going with longleaf.' They usually want longleaf for other reasons.
"What I hear people saying is 'Can I make money from this?' Once I say 'Yes,' they don't ask how much. The other thing I hear is 'I just wish my woods looked like I remember.' Longleaf has a cultural and aesthetic appeal."
Those "other" benefits of managing a longleaf pine forest, in addition to the economic returns, are what attract private landowners like Cody Laird. He is looking for a sustainable income, but there is an overall conservation ethic behind his efforts to restore longleaf pine on his farm. He is working with Leon Neel, manager of the longleaf forest at Greenwood Plantation, and scientists at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center to develop a timber management plan. He will harvest timber based on sustainable forestry, which seeks to mimic natural disturbance with a focus on maintaining ecosystem integrity and the aesthetic quality of the property. The forest is viewed as an investment: The capital of the forest (standing stock) is either allowed to accrue or, at a minimum, not diminish. Only portions of the annual increment are harvested over time.
This system of management was developed by Herbert Stoddard and modified by Neel, who says that an attitude like Laird's is the kind it will take to bring back this ecosystem: "You can pay the basic land management costs like road maintenance and fire expenses with income from longleaf pine timber harvested on the land. However, if you want to build a million-dollar house and spend summers in Europe, that's unreasonable and unfair to require your longleaf lands to pay for that. The landowner almost has to have a conservation goal."
Once the longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystem has been disturbed-the trees cut and the ground cover plowed up-as it has been throughout much of its range, it is difficult to re-create. There are challenges in getting the trees planted and growing, the hundreds of ground cover plants have to be reintroduced, and fire must be used as a management tool. It takes money and expertise, but most of all, it takes a landowner with patience and time. Neel says, "You can't just start with bare ground and in 10 years have a forest. It takes several lifetimes to start from scratch and get it back."
Recognizing that many landowners did need to start from scratch, the U.S. Department of Agriculture initiated its Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The program promotes the planting of longleaf pine on designated cropland by granting federal subsidies. It is the USDA's largest conservation and environmental program and is authorized by Title XII of the Food Security Act of 1985. Landowners can also apply to plant loblolly or slash pine on cropland under the program, but their likelihood of being accepted is not as high.
Here's how the CRP for longleaf works in Georgia. The Georgia Forestry Commission and other state agencies worked with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service to establish guidelines for re-establishing longleaf pines. There are two requirements for landowners: Acres have to be planted in longleaf, and prescribed burning must be used. Foresters with the Georgia Forestry Commission meet with landowners, make recommendations, conduct follow-up inspections, and give final approval so landowners can receive reimbursement for 45 percent of their expenses. Also under the program, landowners receive an annual rental payment on their land for up to 15 years (five years longer than for loblolly or slash). According to Rick Hatten, staff forester for the Georgia Forestry Commission, in Georgia the rental payment for CRP acreage averages $35 to $40 per acre per year. There is a limit to the CRP, though. When it was established, the federal government put a national cap on the number of acres that could be accepted nationwide. "We're close to that national cap," Hatten says.
He says the CRP has been immensely popular in Georgia: "The response has been overwhelming. Over the past two years, over 70 percent of the acreage for longleaf pine approved nationwide was in Georgia. The total CRP longleaf acreage in Georgia is around 120,000."
The popularity of the CRP combined with longleaf pine's sporadic natural seed production means seedlings in Georgia are in short supply. While most pines in the Southeast produce cones and seed annually, longleaf pine produces a seed crop by the process of periodic masting. That means during most years the trees produce a few or no cones, but once every few years all the longleaf pines in a region produce cones and seed simultaneously. At nurseries, seedlings are available on a first-come, first-served basis. If they are not available, landowners go on a waiting list. Hatten says some landowners have waited two years to get longleaf pine seedlings.
Once landowners have the seedlings, there are challenges in successfully planting the trees. Current technology helps, but Hatten says landowners still have to be more careful with longleaf than they do with other pines. He says seedlings must be planted to exact specifications because the bud of the tree sits right at the root collar. If the bud is too far in the ground, it rots and kills the seedling, but if it is not planted deep enough and the roots are exposed to the air, the seedling will die. Landowners must also prepare the site properly and control weedy competition in order to get the longleaf out of the grass stage more quickly. Hatten says, "You can't take shortcuts. You have to take the time to get it planted right. It's not like loblolly or slash where if you just get the green end up, they do alright."
Planting trees is the first step in restoring a longleaf pine forest, but that alone will not bring back the richness and diversity of the longleaf pine- wiregrass ecosystem. In sharp contrast with its low tree-species diversity, the overall habitat diversity of the longleaf pine forest is among the highest of any habitat found in the Coastal Plain. A study in Florida found there are more species of breeding birds in old-growth longleaf pine forests than in any other forest type. The highest species density of amphibians and reptiles in North America was mapped over the geographic distribution of longleaf pine. According to one 1995 study, at least 170 (59 percent) of the 290 species of amphibians and reptiles native to the southeastern U.S. are found within the range of longleaf pine.
One factor contributing to the diverse wildlife found in these forests is the number of species found in the ground cover. The number of plant species ranges from 150 to 300 per 2.5 acres. Restoring the longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystem means bringing back this plant diversity, which landowners, researchers, and land managers are finding is the most difficult part of the restoration process.
Alison McGee, field representative for The Nature Conservancy of Georgia says, "The biggest challenge to restoring this ecosystem is getting the hundreds of plants in the ground cover back on land that has been disturbed."
According to Dr. Kay Kirkman, associate scientist at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, reintroducing fire to the forest and bringing back ground cover are related. Kirkman says the species most commonly referred to as wiregrass-Aristida beyrichiana-is very flammable. Because it is a bunch grass, it also helps fire move through the forest by holding up the fallen needles of the longleaf pines. That keeps the ground dry and allows fire to move easily through the grass and needles. "When you have the needles of the trees and the wiregrass, it makes it much easier to burn and control hardwoods. So, the questions we're faced with are what ground cover species are most important to reintroduce and how do we reintroduce them."
There are a couple of different options for landowners who want to reintroduce wiregrass: plugging and seeding. Plugging wiregrass involves planting ground cover seedlings. According to Kirkman, plugging does work. The main problem is the expense of doing it: The plugs are expensive ($0.30 to $0.40 per plug) and it takes a lot of plugs to cover an acre (3 to 5 per square meter).
Laird began plugging wiregrass on his farm in the fall of 1999. Drought conditions followed his planting, but Laird says the plugs are still there, although not robust. Considering the expense, he does not see plugging as the long-term solution to re-establishing wiregrass on his land. He is planning to harvest seeds from the wiregrass he has growing on his property and take them into the greenhouse he is building on his farm. There, he will use the seed to grow his own plugs. Laird says he will then continue plugging in small, high-priority areas but only until planting seed directly becomes a viable option.
Kirkman thinks Laird is on the right track: "Landowners can start with plugs and create a seed orchard, but in terms of restoring wiregrass on a large amount of acreage, at the Jones Center we feel plugs are not the best way to go. We want to reintroduce species by sowing the seed."
Kirkman says researchers are investigating sowing seeds instead of planting seedlings, but there are hurdles when you are talking about seeding wiregrass or other ground cover species: "There are limited sources for seeds, you need specialized harvesting equipment to get them, and once you have the seeds you need know-how to get them in the ground."
Still, she says there is demand from landowners who want more than stands of longleaf pine trees-landowners like Laird. "I want the ground cover for wildlife habitat, so that I can have the option of burning at different times of the year, and because it's beautiful," Laird says. But he is concerned not enough landowners participating in the CRP feel the way he does and not enough will work to turn their rows of trees into a functioning ecosystem.
"The objective of the CRP is to restore the longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystem but in 15 years [when annual rent payments end], participating landowners are going to just have rows of pines that they can mow down for fence posts," he says. "If the Conservation Reserve Program is to truly result in the restoration of a small part of the longleaf pine- wiregrass ecosystem, it should include as a part of the cost-sharing the restoration of the ground cover and some incentives to make the tracts permanent."
At a time when so many are working to restore the fire-dependent longleaf pine ecosystem, there are a growing number of fire restrictions in the Coastal Plain. Conservationists agree that protecting the right to use fire as a management tool is essential to restoration. Two threats to burning include declining air quality and suburban sprawl. When landowners burn, it releases particulate matter, and when air quality is already poor, there is not much margin for pollution from smoke. Regulators begin to see fire prevention as a way to clean up air. Sprawl is a problem because as humans spread out across the landscape, forests become more fragmented, making it harder to apply fire.
According to Frank Cole, president of a consulting company in Thomasville called For Lands' Sake!!, smoke is also a social issue. Since the 1940s, the U.S. Forest Service has used Smokey Bear to teach society that fire is bad. Fire was misunderstood as a management tool and suppressed. As a result, smoke scares people because they don't understand how prescribed fire can be used in a pine forest. "As populations grow and the distribution of population grows, people will notice smoke more often," says Cole. "Practitioners need better programs to inform society of the benefits of fire. They also need to be responsible."
Alison McGee of The Nature Conservancy of Georgia says right now clean air regulations are primarily affecting the right to burn in the Atlanta area, but her organization is looking ahead to the time such regulations could affect longleaf pine forests in south Georgia. The Nature Conservancy is working to build a strong Georgia Prescribed Burn Council to protect the right to use fire as a management tool. "As urban areas like Albany and Thomasville become more developed, we recognize the need to have a voice. When lawmakers enact legislation, they need to realize they are impacting our ability to manage an ecological system."
The Georgia Wildlife Federation has also worked to protect land managers' right to burn. Specifically, during the 2000 Georgia legislative session GWF helped pass H.B. 1123, which declared the value of prescribed fire to timber and wildlife management and provided some liability protection to landowners who use recommended methods of burning. GWF President Jerry McCollum says, "This legislation provides incentives for more landowners to use prescribed fire in their management."
Just as clean air regulations may seem to be unrelated to longleaf pine management, so too might current federal inheritance tax laws. But these laws, which levy taxes on beneficiaries, are also having a detrimental effect on timber stands. Individuals who inherit land with longleaf pine on it face stiff taxes, because the timber makes the property highly valuable. Many heirs respond by harvesting the longleaf pine to devalue the property and raise money to pay the taxes.
Rhett Johnson of the Longleaf Alliance says trying to alleviate the burden of estate taxes is an important part of restoring the longleaf pine- wiregrass ecosystem. "Estate taxes are a huge concern for large landowners whose taxes can be as high as 60 percent of the value of their property. That threatens long-term stewardship of natural resources because in many cases it forces heirs to sell and/or liquidate timber."
Dr. Bob Mitchell, a scientist at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center says, "When I speak to policy makers, I talk to them about the damage inheritance taxes do to this ecosystem. I try to help them realize that if we want people to grow 300- and 400-year-old trees, we can't tax them every 20 years when people die."
Recognizing the time it takes and pressures landowners are under to harvest timber, most conservationists agree conservation easements are another part of preserving and restoring the ecosystem long-term. The Nature Conservancy is one of the organizations working to conserve longleaf pine forests in this way. McGee explains conservation easements like this: "When you own land, you also own all the rights to that land. Those rights can be compared to a bundle of sticks. When writing a conservation easement, the landowner selects certain rights out of the bundle-rights to develop land, subdivide property, clear-cut, mine, etc.-and donates those to a conservation organization such as The Nature Conservancy. The conservation organization can never exercise those rights. In return, the landowner receives a substantial income tax deduction from the IRS for a value equal to the value of those rights. The landowner does not have to donate the right to continue to economically prosper from the property."
McGee says every conservation easement is different and is written to reflect the needs of the landowner and the features of the land. "Usually with longleaf pine conservation easements, the landowner can still hunt, selectively harvest trees, and sometimes build a house on part of the property. But the conservation easement ensures that the natural features will be there forever. They are flexible documents that are an extremely effective way to conserve longleaf pine forests."
Mitchell recently worked with Leon Neel and others at the Jones Center to write A Model Management Plan for Conservation Easements in Longleaf-Pine Dominated Landscapes. He says the booklet reflects the Center's belief in the importance of easements and their commitment to helping landowners maximize the benefits of conservation easements. Neel emphasizes the importance of easements this way: "They are the bright hope for preserving lands that otherwise wouldn't be preserved. It's a great way to encourage people to leave something for the future. People won't leave it if the government is going to get half of it in the form of estate taxes."
Considering the vast amount of acreage the longleaf pine-grassland ecosystem once covered in the Southeast, how quickly it is disappearing, and the complex issues involved in re-establishing it, what are reasonable goals for restoration? Because so much of the restoration work must take place on private land, it will be up to landowners to decide how far they want to go with restoration and what they want to invest. At the same time, the conservation community plans to encourage restoration and has goals and visions of its own.
Private landowners usually have a certain aspect of the ecosystem that interests them most-quail, timber, or nongame wildlife. But, as Leon Neel teaches, in order to preserve the functioning forest, no particular interest can outweigh the overall goal of maintaining a healthy total ecosystem. Rhett Johnson says that means the landowner has to be prepared to make some choices, and different landowners will make different decisions. "To fully restore the ecosystem a landowner may have to give up a little quail for Bachman's sparrow. There are some tradeoffs, and there are different steps where people will decide they are pleased. Some people are pleased just to have reintroduced fire. Others are pleased to have ground cover, even if it's not wiregrass, and won't want to go further with restoration."
At the Jones Center, Kirkman describes scientists' role in the restoration effort this way: "We're trying to figure out how to set the ecosystem in motion and accelerate its development. It will still take time, but we want to learn how to push it forward."
She says they are excited about helping restore the ecosystem on lands that can be burned long-term and lands where the owner has goals other than maximizing economic returns. "You need a conservation ethic for restoration. The landowner has to be interested in aesthetic values and biodiversity."
Jerry McCollum says restoration requires a commitment not only from landowners but also cooperation from all of those interested in re-establishing this forest: "The lifelong work of Leon Neel has given us management techniques that we know work, but we also need long-term ecological research into restoration like that being conducted at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center. We appreciate the preservation and restoration work of groups like The Nature Conservancy of Georgia and the efforts of private landowners. Success depends on all of us working together, especially us working for and with private landowners."
And what is success? Jones Center researchers Kirkman and Mitchell feel they are successful in their restoration work when they are working toward a multi-aged forest-one that looks like a natural stand-that is maintained with fire and promotes a wide variety of species, both plant and animal. Mitchell adds, "If the ecosystem's rare species are able to make their home where you're working, then you know you've been successful."
McGee of The Nature Conservancy says she believes it is appropriate to work toward restoring longleaf pine across its range. "We will not ever bring back the whole 90 million acres, but in the short-term we're focusing on expanding out from areas where we know longleaf pine forests exist."
Johnson says the Longleaf Alliance set an internal goal of seeing 6 million acres on longleaf pine on the southeastern landscape, which is about double the amount that exists currently. "We are focused on critical gaps-gaps where we can get the most good out of limited effort. For example, we're working to create corridors between public longleaf lands. We want to form a matrix of longleaf pine."
Achieving restoration goals, both small and large scale, will require work on both public and private lands. On any given tract the issues vary from stopping the harvesting of longleaf pine, to convincing people to plant the trees, to working to re-establish the ground cover. Education is also a critical element of restoration. Researchers still have lessons to learn, especially regarding ground cover species; landowners must learn to manage their lands for this resource, as opposed to short-rotation loblolly and slash pine; and the public must understand the value of this ecosystem.
Mitchell says, "Most Georgians know more about the importance of conserving the rain forest than they do about the importance of conserving longleaf pine. So decisions to eliminate the forest are easy because people don't know what they are missing. If they know about longleaf, people with a conservation ethic will pay attention; they can conserve it, restore it, buy it."
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