The Natural Georgia Series: The Fire Forest
Longleaf Pine-Wiregrass Ecosystem
So you've read this magazine and decided you want to experience the thrill of walking through a magical, old-growth longleaf forest like the Europeans found when they settled Georgia. You might as well try to photograph a dodo bird. Or build a time machine to take you back 300 years. The original longleaf forest ecosystem, dominant on the Coastal Plain of the U.S. for at least 40,000 years, is approaching extinction only 270 years since Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe sailed up the Savannah River with his energetic colonists. What remains of the once breathtaking 92-million-acre, old-growth forest in the Southeast is found in scattered small tracts totaling 8,856 acres (2,530 in Georgia) and requires permission in advance to visit.
Occasionally, certain conservation and environmental organizations will organize trips to these rare and valuable properties. You should make the effort to go if the opportunity ever arises. But if you want to sample the ecosystem on your own schedule, you are forced to consider visiting public lands that have a recovering second-growth longleaf pine ecosystem.
So what are we looking for? The first travel writer to describe the longleaf forest was the great naturalist William Bartram as he traveled from Savannah to Augusta in the 1770s: "This plain is mostly a forest of the great long-leaved pine, the earth covered with grass, interspersed with an infinite variety of herbaceous plants, and embellished with extensive savannas, always green, sparkling with ponds of water, and ornamented with clumps of evergreen, and other trees and shrubs.."
Other naturalists lacking Bartram's long-windedness have shortened this description to "longleaf pine-wiregrass" ecosystem, perhaps for lack of a better term. But the name "longleaf pine-wiregrass" should not confuse you. While wiregrass (Aristida spp.) performs an important role in the fire-dependent ecosystem, it is less prevalent on an old-growth tract. The naturally occurring longleaf ecosystem is characterized by a diverse ground cover interspersed with a non-diverse, open canopy (just uneven-aged longleaf pines).
But wiregrass has gotten the publicity and the result is that Georgia has two official wiregrass trails. Like me, you might be tempted to drive them both looking for this ecosystem. The not eponymously named "Wiregrass Trail" in southeast Georgia begins at Exit 98 on Interstate 16, follows GA 57 through Exit 58 on Interstate 95, and ends on Highway 17. While it is scenic and interesting, I have not been able to find any wiregrass growing along this 70-mile route. The other, designated the "Wiregrass Georgia Parkway," follows US 84 in south Georgia from Liberty County to the Alabama state line and actually does roll past patches of wiregrass and small examples of the longleaf pine ecosystem. But what you mainly see is what has replaced the fire-dependent ecosystem in the Coastal Plain: industrial forestry (seemingly infinite rows of crowded slash and loblolly pines with little understory), large-scale agriculture, and brushy stands of pines mixed with hardwoods. Older longleaf pines are generally found in the front yard of a farmer's residence, towering over a forlorn patch of bermuda grass, the exotic single-species substitute of what once was 500 species of native herbs, legumes, grasses, and wildflowers.
On public property, the best introduction to the longleaf ecosystem I've found is located in the southwest corner of Georgia at Seminole State Park. While not as diverse or breathtaking as an old-growth example, the park is worth the drive. Armed with an excellent nature trail guide prepared by Scott D. Coleman of the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, visitors walking the well-maintained 2.2-mile Gopher Tortoise Nature Trail are exposed to the natural features that comprise the ecosystem and evidence of processes that keep it healthy.
At the southern end of the nature trail you will find wiregrass. It grows in clumps and is recognized by tough curled blades that give the plant its name. Wiregrass is excellent fuel for a longleaf ecosystem wildfire and will only bloom and produce a viable seed after a warm-season burn. This formerly common species is usually eradicated when land has been plowed and is very difficult to re-establish. Ground nesting birds such as quail, wild turkey, and Bachman's sparrows lay their eggs in or around wiregrass and are seen in the park.
Other grass species are found here, as well as legumes such as partridge pea, butterfly pea, and sensitive briar, and composites such as black-eyed susans, gayfeathers, goldenrods, asters, daisy fleabanes, ironweeds, and elephant-foot. Milkweed, wild petunia, and species of phlox are other conspicuous flowering plants found here.
The longleaf pines along the nature trail are second growth and estimated to be 40 to 50 years old. Older examples of longleaf are located near the entrance of the park. Look for 10-inch-long needles and large cones on the ground. Examine the cones and you may find winged seeds-somewhat resembling the maple seeds one sees spiraling down like mini-helicopters during springtime. The seeds are produced in heavy quantities three or four times every 20 years in a natural stratagem to overwhelm the appetites of seed predators. Fire is needed to produce the right soil conditions for germination as the longleaf seed requires bare ground to grow.
Common sights along the trail are gopher tortoises, the state reptile of Georgia. They live in burrows that may be 30 feet long, 6 feet deep, and wide enough for the tortoise to turn around in at any point. Many other animals and insects of the longleaf ecosystem use these burrows, such as Eastern indigo snakes, gopher frogs, and subterranean insects.
Hikers will see small specimens of turkey oak, running oak, southern red oak, and live oak called "scrub oaks." Because the property is burned, these oaks stay small and scrubby. If fire is suppressed, most of these oaks will achieve mature tree size and shade out the longleaf pines and the ecosystem will evolve to a southern mixed hardwood forest. Some examples of mature hardwoods are found scattered across the property.
Lastly, don't ignore the pond. Wetlands are an important component of a longleaf pine ecosystem. Called limestone sinks in this region, depressions are formed when limestone dissolves below the soil and forms a shallow depression that fills with fresh water. Influencing the variety of flora and fauna found here will be the length and depth of inundation and if it periodically burns.
The 604-acre park is located next to Lake Seminole, a 37,500-acre reservoir created from the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers. The lake is relatively shallow and stumpy, but inundated natural limesink ponds have left areas of cool, clear water with a variety of fish. Duck and deer hunting are popular around the lake and in the 16,895 acres that comprise Lake Seminole Wildlife Management Area, located in different tracts around the reservoir.
The park provides excellent access to Lake Seminole and has 50 tent, trailer, and RV sites; 14 waterfront cottages; and a primitive camping site. A family/group shelter can accommodate 75 guests, and five picnic shelters can seat approximately 30 people. Canoes, pedal boats, and bikes are available to rent. The park also has a swimming beach, four boat ramps, and two fishing docks.
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