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The Natural Georgia Series: The Fire Forest

Longleaf Pine-Wiregrass Ecosystem

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The Nature Conservancy: Focusing on Protection and Restoration

By Sarah G. Lowry

The longleaf pine forest was once the greatest forest on earth. In the 1700s longleaf pines covered approximately 92 million acres across the Southeast. Today, less than three percent of the forest remains and what's left is disappearing at a rate of 100,000 acres per year. Losses of longleaf pine are staggering. In the last 30 years alone, longleaf pine acreage in north Florida has decreased by 84 percent.

Impressive in its own right, a longleaf pine can reach over 120 feet with a trunk exceeding more than 3 feet in diameter and can live for three to four centuries. Re-creating a longleaf pine forest, the kind that once dominated the southeastern United States at the time of European settlement, is more than a lifetime's pursuit. However, protecting the remaining longleaf pine forests has been, and continues to be, a high priority for The Nature Conservancy of Georgia.

The Nature Conservancy is an international, nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the plants, animals, and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on earth by protecting the land and waters they need to survive. Since its inception in 1951, the organization has protected over 12 million acres. In Georgia, The Nature Conservancy has safeguarded more than 200,000 acres including the Chickasawhatchee Swamp and Cumberland Island.

In December of 1998, The Nature Conservancy completed the two-year inventory phase of its Longleaf Pine Initiative. The objective of the inventory was to assess the extent and quality of Georgia's remaining longleaf pine forests. Through the inventory, TNC identified the location of Georgia's longleaf pine forests, assessed the quality of these forests, and determined the longleaf pine community types that are found at these sites. The Nature Conservancy, in partnership with the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, used the results of the inventory along with additional research to compile a map reflecting the current status of longleaf pine in Georgia.

Georgia's longleaf pine forests once dominated upland habitats from the Fall Line to the coast. In the Coastal Plain, a single lightning strike could start a fire that would burn thousands of acres of longleaf pine forest. Lightning-caused fires occurred frequently and perpetuated longleaf pine and many of the ground cover species associated with this forest type.

Today, habitat managers use prescribed fire to manage longleaf pine forests. The Nature Conservancy is working to build a strong Georgia Prescribed Burn Council to ensure that the right to use prescribed fire as a management tool is maintained. Increasing restrictions may threaten The Nature Conservancy and others' ability to manage land. Longleaf pine forests cannot persist over time without frequent, low-intensity fire.

The second phase of the Longleaf Pine Initiative is to work with private landowners of priority sites to conserve these areas through conservation easements, management agreements, acquisition, gifts, and registries. The Nature Conservancy will also provide information to land managers on the significance of publicly owned longleaf pine sites. Through these steps, The Nature Conservancy will ensure that viable examples representing the full spectrum of Georgia's diverse longleaf pine forests will remain for future generations.

As part of this phase, The Nature Conservancy, in partnership with the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, hosted an event on October 26, 2000 celebrating the conservation and stewardship of longleaf pine by private landowners. Private landowners of longleaf pine forests were brought together to both recognize their accomplishments (maintaining a longleaf pine forest instead of converting it to other uses), and to provide them with the tools to help them meet future challenges of managing their land. Presentation topics included conservation management, prescribed burning, landowner incentives, conservation easements, and the Safe Harbor program for red-cockaded woodpeckers.

For more information on The Nature Conservancy, call (404) 873-6946 or visit our Web site at www.tnc.org/georgia.

Longleaf Pine Fast Facts

    1. The longleaf pine ecosystem supports more than 300 globally imperiled species.
    2. Aside from military bases, private individuals own most of the remaining longleaf pine in Georgia.
    3. The longleaf pine forest is an endangered community.
    4. Fire is to the longleaf pine forest what rain is to the rain forest.

       


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