Where Habitats Overlap: Restoring Montane Longleaf

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Where Habitats Overlap: Restoring Montane Longleaf

By Linda May
The fire-adapted longleaf pine ecosystem is one of the Southeast’s richest habitats. Its characteristically open canopy invites sunlight to dapple the forest floor, springing forth a host of low-growing grasses, ferns and wildflowers in the understory. The plant life, along with the environment’s streams and rivers, provides food, water and shelter for a variety of wildlife.

In the 1930s, about 4 million acres of these long-lived pines dominated the Coastal Plain as well as sections of the western Piedmont. Less than 5 percent of that native landscape exists today, with only some areas maintaining pristine groundcover. Not surprisingly, many wildlife species that live in these forests have also declined, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, Bachman’s sparrow, bobwhite quail and northern pine snake. In hopes of saving this biologically important ecosystem, longleaf pine habitats are listed as a high priority in Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan.

Remnant of montane longleaf pineWhile significant research has been conducted on longleaf habitats in the Coastal Plain, less is known about the ecosystems in the mountains. A few stands of montane longleaf pines remain from just north of Rome to Pine and Oak mountains in west-central Georgia. Like their Coastal Plain counterparts, most longleaf in the mountains were harvested. Many were replaced with shorter-lived loblolly and other pine species for industrial forestry. Others were simply abandoned, leaving room for fire-intolerant hardwood species that compete with longleaf pine and suppress understory diversity and abundance.

Beneficial, regular lightning-set fires were replaced by a century of fire suppression, increasing competition from trees like sweetgum that would otherwise die in the flames. Because of human impact, a few old stumps typically are all that is left of the longleaf forest.

Although the remaining longleaf communities in the Coastal Plain and the mountains share similarities, montane longleaf ecosystems boast unique, endangered oak woodland and glade habitats among the pines. DNR-managed Sprewell Bluff, just west of Thomaston on Pine Mountain, contains these special open woodlands where longleaf pines mix with an unusual variety of fire-tolerant oaks and other hardwood species like sand post oak, blackjack oak, Darlington oak, turkey oak, sand hickory, hoptree and Alabama cherry. Bluestem and other native grasses as well as wildflowers attract butterflies and many of the same migratory songbirds that frequent the north Georgia mountains.

According to DNR senior wildlife biologist Nathan Klaus, “The overlap of northern and southern species is what makes this place so unique.”

Restoring Sprewell Bluff and other montane longleaf pine habitats is Klaus’ passion. “If you can get back to the original habitat, you will perpetuate the original species richness,” he said.

How do land managers restore the original habitat? Loblolly harvest followed by longleaf plantings is an option, but prescribed fire is the main tool used for bringing back native species. Since farming was less prevalent on the steep, rocky Pine Mountain soils than elsewhere in the Piedmont, most of the topsoil and natural seed bank is still in place.

“These mountain habitats offer the greatest potential in the Piedmont for managing species that require open pine habitat,” Klaus said. “Getting back to a functional ecosystem is possible here just by prescribed burning.”

greater tickseedFor prescribed burns, detailed fire management plans must be developed and approved, and well-defined firebreaks must be in place. The proper temperature, humidity and wind have to occur before any drip torches are put into action. Prescribed fire also takes a well-trained crew, especially when dealing with decades of fuel build-up in the form of pine needles, fallen leaves and sticks. This overabundance of “duff” at the base of large trees can smolder for hours with intense heat and kill even the most fire-resistant mature longleaf pines. To prevent such a disaster, decades of low-impact fires may be set when the weather is cool and the ground is moist, reducing the fuel to safer levels before returning to a normal fire regime.

Klaus applies a suite of tools in his restoration work. In addition to studying the fire ecology of montane longleaf, he is also studying how different herbicides may be used to suppress unwanted species while minimizing harm to desirable plants. For better insight into the natural frequency of fires, Klaus used dendrochronology, the science of studying tree rings. Examining fire scars on sections of longleaf pine dating back to the 1770s, he documented the historic fire frequency and season. His findings are used to guide management of Sprewell Bluff and other important habitats.

When asked why he cares so much about restoring longleaf ecosystems and maintaining biodiversity, Klaus replied, “Life is so much richer with variety. We could probably survive in a world of skyscrapers, but would we want to?”

Public lands longleaf
See the beauty of montane longleaf pine forests here:

  • Wildlife management areas: Arrowhead, Berry College, J.L. Lester, Paulding Forest, Sheffield
  • Sprewell Bluff State Outdoor Recreation Area
  • F.D. Roosevelt State Park (particularly along the ridges of the Wolf Den Creek Trail)
  • Chattahoochee National Forest
  • Chattahoochee Bend State Park

This is the third article in a five-part series on the State Wildlife Action Plan. Read the entire series here.

Linda May is the environmental outreach coordinator with the Nongame Conservation Section.

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