Last week, GCPO LCC Coordinator Greg Wathen and I attended the 3rd Biennial Shortleaf Pine Conference, hosted by the Shortleaf Pine Initiative in Knoxville Tennessee. The Initiative was launched in 2013 in response to the dramatic decline in shortleaf pine forests in the last several decades. Shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) was once common in pine and mixed pine-oak forests from Texas and Oklahoma to the eastern seaboard from Florida to New Jersey. Since shortleaf pine is more resistant to fire, ice, snow and drought than other pines, its decline threatens the resilience of southeastern forests.
Like longleaf pine, shortleaf pine is well-adapted to frequent fire, but it responds to fire in an entirely different way. Longleaf pine saplings insulate their cambium from the killing heat with an abundance of long, bushy needles that resemble tufts of grass. Shortleaf pine allows the fires to completely kill the above ground portion of the plant, then re-sprouts from dormant buds just below the soil surface. These buds are associated with a double crook formation that makes shortleaf pine seedlings easily distinguishable from other pine species. This fire-adaptation allows shortleaf pine to thrive in woodland and savanna settings characterized by a continuous herbaceous ground story and sparse overstory canopies.
Shortleaf Pine Initiative director Mike Black introduced the conference by describing the process that led to the release of the newly completed third draft of the range-wide conservation plan, which was distributed to all attendees and will be available for public review soon. Dr. Jim Guldin, USFS research ecologist, gave the keynote address, in which he outlined many of the factors to consider in the restoration of shortleaf pine. He noted that in those areas where the ranges of loblolly and shortleaf overlap, partners need to be honest with land owners about what can be achieved economically with shortleaf. As is the case with longleaf, shortleaf cannot compete economically with loblolly on short rotations, but will produce excellent saw timber on long rotations. Other incentives, such as aesthetics or environmental services, are necessary to raise interest in growing shortleaf pine in loblolly country.
He also noted that, for reasons not fully understood, hybridization between shortleaf and longleaf is becoming more common. Overlap in the periods for the release of pollen by both species, which are historically separated temporally, are becoming more common. Oklahoma State University Professor Rod Will presented a strong argument that the increasing rates of hybridization could lead to the disappearance of shortleaf through a process called introgression. Martin Blaney, habitat coordinator with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, shared a management perspective based on twenty years of shortleaf pine restoration in the Ouachita National Forest. While presenting endpoint metrics and desired future conditions for three shortleaf pine communities, Blaney emphasized caution about reliance on prescriptive “recipes,” since site conditions and management goals can vary a great deal across the vast range of shortleaf pine.
The Wednesday field trips included a visit to a beautiful restored oak woodland savanna in the Catoosa Wildlife Management area on an absolutely gorgeous sunny first day of autumn. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency created much of the savanna after timber harvests in 2000 and 2001 in response to a southern pine beetle outbreak. Many stands have been burned three or four times since, and in some areas shortleaf pine regeneration is occurring in extensive colorful expanses of wildflowers and grasses, including little bluestem, Indiangrass, and switchgrass.
In his review of the importance of the Shortleaf Pine Initiative, Ken Arney, Deputy Regional Forester for the US Forest Service, remarked that in the 1970s the chief conservation conflict in this arena was between timber interests and wildlife. We have come a long way and now work cooperatively with industry partners to keep forest in forest and prevent its loss to other uses. He also acknowledged the Longleaf Pine Initiative as a model of success. The third biennial Shortleaf Pine Initiative Conference left me with a greater understanding of who is doing what and why when it comes to restoration and conservation of open pine woodland and savanna in the northern portion of the Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozarks Landscape Conservation Cooperative geography.