There’s a revival underway. Landowners throughout the South are embracing a new conservation ethic and turning their land into an oasis for game and nongame wildlife alike. They are using prescribed fire, planting trees and controlling invasive species to restore native ecosystems.
Much of that restoration effort includes longleaf pines. At one time, these iconic trees with their needlelike leaves up to 18 inches long were common sights throughout the Southeast. Their range extended an estimated 90 million acres from the coastal plain of southern Virginia down into Florida and west into eastern Texas.
Longleafs are long-lived, with some documented at more than 400 years of age. Logging, fire suppression and industrial forestry of other tree species, though, gradually altered the landscape. This native pine now inhabits far less than half its historic acreage. As the pines went, so did the wildlife that depended on them. At least two dozen plants and animals in the longleaf pine’s range are either threatened or endangered.
“Longleafs are a critical part of the ecosystem in the South,” said Vernon Compton, Gulf Coastal Ecosystem Partnership director for The Longleaf Alliance (www.longleafalliance.org), whose goal is to restore longleaf pine forests throughout their historic range. “They are a unique species. They grow in such a way that sunlight can reach the forest floor, which allows a variety of native shrubs, grasses and other plants to thrive. They are also the most fire-resilient southern pine.”
Longleaf pines aren’t just fire-resilient; they are fire-dependent. That is, they need a regular cycle of fire to thrive. Fire helps the trees to reseed. It also clears out competing trees and an accumulation of dead plant matter while stimulating new growth. That benefits a variety of wildlife.
“A longleaf pine ecosystem is great nesting and brood-rearing habitat for turkeys, and it is great habitat for bobwhite quail,” said Ricky Lackey, NWTF district biologist. “The entire longleaf pine ecosystem is one of the most biologically unique and diverse ecosystems in the country, but it needs fire to thrive.”
Many landowners, public and private, are stepping up. Land managers have used prescribed fire to manage an estimated 10 million acres throughout longleaf country in the last decade alone. These public and private landowners have planted 1.2 million acres of the trees during that same period.
Even with so much interest in habitat restoration, some landowners are still leery of using prescribed fire in dry pine needles and watching the landscape go up in flames. Who can blame them? Aside from the potential risks, the use of fire as a conservation tool comes with a unique set of challenges. The good news is that when done properly, controlled burns are safe, highly effective and stress-free.
The even-better news is there is help at your disposal. All you have to do is pick up the phone and give your regional NWTF biologist a call. Although these professionals may not be able visit every landowner who wants to transform their property into a wildlife oasis, they can point you to someone who can. That might be a representative of The Longleaf Alliance. The alliance also has a staff of experts ready to help landowners create better habitat. One of the best parts, according to Compton, is they don’t charge for their assistance.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service is another great resource. This federal agency provides technical assistance and cost sharing to help ease the financial burden.
Burning may seem like an inexpensive way to improve wildlife habitat, but there is far more to a controlled burn than dropping a match. Having a sound management plan is important.
“If we can’t do a site visit and help work up a management plan, someone in one of the other groups can,” Lackey said. “We all work together to help landowners meet their conservation goals. That’s what we do.”
Technical assistance for landowners isn’t limited to a single site visit by an expert from the NWTF or another conservation organization. In-depth landowner workshops are held throughout the region on a regular basis. Some are one-day events with a narrow focus, such as prescribed fire techniques. Others take place over multiple days and cover the entire process of converting marginal habitat into great habitat.
“The workshops are usually a collaborative effort among the various conservation groups and state and federal agencies” Lackey said. “Typically, representatives from state forestry departments, state wildlife agencies, the NRCS, the Longleaf Alliance and the NWTF will be on hand to help landowners learn about proper management techniques and how they benefit the ecosystem. Someone might be an expert on burning. Someone else can talk about the benefits to various wildlife species. Another representative might talk about cost-share programs. Basically, we cover all the bases.”
In many instances, those workshops are held on-site, often on land where various conservation measures have already been implemented. Those measures may include a controlled burn, tree planting, site preparation or any other effort to improve wildlife habitat. The workshops are largely “show and tell” programs. Attendees do not just learn from scientists and other experts. The landowner is often there to talk about his experiences with the process, Compton said.
Learning how to turn marginal habitat into quality longleaf habitat is just the first step. Actual implementation of a management plan takes time and lots of hard work. And, it takes money. Fortunately, a number of cost-share programs, including the Working Lands for Wildlife program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program, are available through the NRCS. In most cases, any landowner who plans and properly applies will qualify to some extent.
“We help decide the best program for what you have and what your desired goals are,” said Scott Williams, an NWTF district biologist who works closely with NRCS staff. “We all work together to help landowners navigate the process and implement various conservation efforts.”
Representatives of the NRCS also conduct site evaluations and rank properties based on various factors. For example, the presence of gopher tortoises or another threatened or endangered specie that lives in longleaf ecosystems usually elevates the priority. The desire to convert a loblolly pine plantation to longleafs can also result in a higher ranking. That ranking can determine the percentage of cost reimbursement. In some cases, the NRCS will pick up the entire tab, Williams said. Covered expenses include everything from the cost of cutting firebreaks and burning to longleaf tree plantings and herbicide.
Remember, this technical assistance provided by the NWTF, The Longleaf Alliance or the NRCS is free. All you need is a desire to join the revival.