The Forest and The Trees

While perusing the UGA Extension website,  I came across the following:

Georgia forests, located in the heart of the nation’s “wood basket,” cover some 24.8 million acres…Forests now cover 67 percent of the land area statewide. 

In a land where cities continue to grow towards each other, maintaining – increasing, even – the amount of forest is a positive sign, right?

How do you define a forest?  Most of us will agree that trees are a necessary component.  But are they the only necessary component?

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I see too many pine plantations that are little more than wood fiber croplands; it is a crop that grows over decades rather than months.  In such situations, timber managers make no provisions for anything except maximizing wood fiber.  Often, they will do their best to eradicate anything in the field that isn’t planted pine.  After using chemicals, followed by bedding or scalping the soil with tractors, they plant seedlings so close together that in less than a decade the pine tops touch; this closure of the tree canopy makes it difficult for anything to grow beneath the pines.  Green needles above, and a brown needle carpet below – all available resources go to the crop.

Am I saying this is wrong?  No; if your top priority is to growFBM_rich spp mix pines, then this is an efficient way to do it, so long as disease and beetles are kept at bay.  But I don’t really think of a crop field of trees as a true pine forest.  I’ve seen living pine forests, their boughs swaying in the breeze, with scores of plant species carpeting the ground beneath.  Yes, and the air filled with bird song, the rustle of squirrels and rabbits, the crash of running deer.  As an example, look at the photo to the right: I couldn’t count the number of different species shown in this understory, but I know I liked what I saw.  Broomsedge, ragweed, partridge pea, goldenrod, wiregrass – all these and more provide seeds for birds, nesting cover, flowers for pollinators, and fuel for the fires that keep the habitat open and vibrant.  The pines in this stand weren’t slacking, either.  The well-thinned pines in open stands will be healthier, more resistant to insect infestation, and will increase diameter faster than more crowded stands.

Some who own their tree farms live far away from them. Others are listening to the timber buyer’s top offer.  They have no use for bird song, and gain no pleasure in the land apart from a balance sheet rich in digits.  But for the bird watcher, the hunter, and the curious naturalist, decades of enjoyment in their woodland is more than worth the price of a reduced payout.  Proper management of a forest results in a living community of flora and fauna, peace and recreation for landowners – and yes, a source of income.

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For More Information:

Know Your Forest: Thinning

To Thin or Not To Thin

Thinning for Profit, Health, and Wildlife

Basal Area: A Measure Made for Management

Destroying the Woods to Save Them

This title for this essay was inspired by an infamous phrase quoted by war correspondent Peter Arnett.  Bến Tre City had been heavily bombed and shelled in an effort to drive out the occupying Viet Cong, and an unnamed officer remarked that “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

How is that relevant?  Every year, smoke rises from forests in the coastal plain.  Some folks might be appalled to see forest managers with drip torches, running strings of fire through their woods.  It looks like a case of destroying the woods, but we really are trying to save it.

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In south Georgia we have the remnants of an ecosystem  maintained through natural and man-caused fire (The former by lightning, the latter by Native Americans and later by the settlers who supplanted them).  The longleaf pine, one of our more fire-tolerant trees, thrives in a community which is not only well-adapted to frequent fire, but encourages its spread.  Depending on where the particular habitat is, there may  scores of plant species mixed together: bunch grasses, legumes, wildflowers and other forbs– including many not found anywhere else.   The fauna of these communities are equally rich and varied, and include a number of  grassland birds such as bobwhite quail, meadowlarks, field sparrows, and indigo buntings.  Some threatened and endangered plants and animals are only  found in this ecosystem.

What brings these species together to form a community? In the highly competitive natural world, resilience to fire gives these species an edge over others. Vegetation that can survive periodic burning enjoys the benefits of  abundant sunlight and less competition; highly flammable parts such as dried grass and pine needles actually promote a fire’s spread.  The insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals present here have evolved to exploit the local vegetation’s bounty of seeds, fruit, and accompanying insects; those animals who aren’t fleet enough to escape the flames will utilize burrows or make their own (literally hundreds of species of invertebrates, reptiles, mammals and even birds will find shelter in gopher tortoise burrows).

Now, you’ve probably seen the western fires, with roiling smoke and flames tearing through the treetops.  That’s not what we’re talking about here.  Generally speaking, we see low-intensity fires in frequently-burned longleaf forests – flames rising to three or four feet high.  The grasses, fallen pine needles and other detritus act as fuel to carry fire across the landscape, killing hardwood seedlings and any other plants that aren’t adapted to fire  (and occasionally some that are – survival of the fittest and all that).tall timbers Continue reading “Destroying the Woods to Save Them”

Manicured vs. Unruly

Autumn is my favorite season, but I’ve come to appreciate spring.  From my office – an old house turned into a biologist’s workspace – I can step out and feel the breeze which rustles the boughs of red cedars, holly, dogwood and pine.  The wildlife management area that I work from was originally put together by a wealthy individual as a bobwhite quail preserve.  Right around the living quarters of the place, it looks positively park-like.  Or rather, the front is park-like, with dogwoods, oaks, stately pines and various shrubs on a close-mown lawn.  On the back side, one finds tall pines, waving brown broomsedge, and a profusion of forbs and grasses – very natural for the area.  Quite a contrast, between manicured nature and its freer aspect!

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The tame side is managed with a riding mower; when ice or wind scatters limbs across the lawn or pavement, a front-loader comes around to collect them and neaten up the place.  Here one finds close-cropped grass and what forbs that manage to raise their flowers no more than a couple of inches (bluets being a common one).

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The wild side is managed less intensively, yet (to me) more agreeably.  Every other March, a low fire licks across the pine needles, fallen limbs and broomsedge.  Within a few weeks, green colors the blackened ground, and by Fall the golden grasses wave in the wind again.  I can kneel and with outstretched hands touch a dozen different species coexisting in the noonday sun.  And it is here and not the lawn where I hear bobwhites and see the leavings of rabbits and other critters.

I have friends who are fastidious when it comes to well-manicured, carpet-like lawns.  For some, the yard-carpet is a point of pride, while others mow only because of neighborhood peer pressure.  Some people water, fertilize, and herbicide their yards in exacting regimens in much the same way as a chef mixes his artisan masterpiece, all to reach the ultimate goal: a short, thick carpet comprised of a single species of grass and nothing else.  I never bought into the yard-as-hobby.  I have several grasses and a score of different forbs within my bawn.  For the most part, survival in that unwatered sand earns a spot, although mowing is deemed necessary to discourage venomous intruders.

I grant that there are times and places when it is in our interest to lay a heavy hand on the land.  But the artificiality of close-cropped turf and sharp-cornered hedges pleases me not half so much as the rustle of rabbits and fox squirrels hidden behind a broomsedge curtain.

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It’s Dangerous Business, Frodo, Going Out Your Door…

“At which point, at long last, there was the actual doing it, quickly followed by the grim realization of what it meant to do it, followed by the decision to quit doing it because doing it was absurd and pointless and ridiculously difficult and far more than I expected doing it would be and I was profoundly unprepared to do it.”  ― Cheryl Strayed

Call me Dustin Autry.  I am a naturalist both in the professional (a wildlife biologist by training) and philosophical (a spirituality devoid of supernaturalism) senses of the term.

There are many who love nature in the abstract, but lack the access to experience or the knowledge base to fully appreciate the natural world.   I hope my thoughts and experiences will inspire you to delve further into the world around us.

My current stomping ground is the upper coastal plain of Georgia, but the whole world is fair game for my lens.  Let me know what you think.