Earlier this week, GCPO LCC staff met with representatives from America's Longleaf, The Shortleaf Pine Initiative, The US Fish and Wildlife Service, Weyerhauser, The Nature Conservancy of Alabama, The Joseph W. Jones Center at Ichauway, Mississippi State University, the National Fish and Wildlife Federation , NatureServe, and The US Forest Service to discuss collaboration on several projects focused on better understanding and management of open pine ecosystems. Open pine woodlands and savannas, once common in the eastern United States, support many wildlife species, including the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, northern bobwhite, black pine snake, and Bachman’s sparrow. The geographical range of open pine habitat has declined dramatically over the last century due to extensive harvesting, conversion of forests to other land uses, the suppression of landscape-scale fire, and other factors. Without fire, or a disturbance regime that imitates fire effects, what little pine woodland and savanna that remains transitions into a closed canopy mixed hardwood condition through the process of natural succession.
The projects discussed at this meeting all address open pine in terms of observable desired forest conditions, such as canopy cover, basal area, percent ground story vegetative cover, midstory density, and other condition metrics, with the goal of determining appropriate ranges for each condition metric. These ranges vary depending on the species of concern and the type of open pine forest under management. Longleaf pine forests occur in the southern part of the southeastern United States, generally on sandy soils, and can be broken out as xeric (dry) and wet types. Loblolly and Shortleaf pine forests occur in the flatwoods of the coastal plain and in the hills and mountains of the Ouachita, Ozark, and Appalachian ranges. Desired forest conditions for gopher tortoise, a charismatic fauna of the sandhills and coastal forests, are different than those of Bachman’s sparrow or northern bobwhite. Conditions for forests managed for timber production, an important part of our network of lands and waters, are different from those applied to stands managed for wildlife conservation. These projects address these conditions in different landscapes and in forests with different management regimes. The overall goal is to provide managers with science-based decision support tools (essentially when to thin, when to burn, when to let it grow into condition) in order to engender the best wildlife response. Moving forward, the LCC is developing projects designed to test the proposed condition metrics by monitoring species occurrence in forest plots both in and out of condition.
The meeting was held at the Mountain Resources Center, a Jackson State University Field Schools project north of Heflin, Alabama. The Center is in the Talladega National Forest at the southern edge of the Appalachian Mountains. The Talladega National Forest is home to two wilderness areas, Cheaha and Dugger Mountain, and is within a few miles of the Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge. Together, these areas form a large, mostly intact, and ecologically significant tract nestled between three large cities: Birmingham, Chattanooga, and Atlanta.
USFS Wildlife Biologist Jonathan Stober led the group on a tour of woodland conservation sites and spoke about the challenges of managing for fire-dependent species in proximity to such large urban areas. Stands of pure longleaf pine, and longleaf pine mixed with shortleaf pine and dry oak, are unusual in the mountains, and these hilly regions of northern Alabama and Georgia are the only areas where the species naturally occurs in elevations above the coastal plain and piedmont (see map of Local Implementation Teams within the Historical Range of Longleaf Pine, provided by America’s Longleaf).
At Talladega National Forest, pine and pine-oak woodlands occur on the drier ridge tops, just as with oak woodlands I visited in Bankhead National Forest with the Fire in Eastern Oak Forests Conference last spring and with shortleaf pine bluestem savannas I visited in the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area with the Shortleaf Pine Initiative Biennial Conference last fall. We visited a recently-burned ridge top and saw apical meristem shoot growth on singed longleaf seedlings next to dead loblolly seedlings of the same size and age.
The GCPO LCC would like to thank everyone who took the time to come out and share their knowledge and perspective on this important and dynamic forest type. We would also like to thank the staff of the Mountain Resources Center and Jacksonville State University for their hospitality, and especially Jonathan Stober for his insights during the hands-on, up-close tour of mountain longleaf and dry oak woodland management sites.