The Longleaf Pine: Georgia’s First Tree
It’s the first light of a late-autumn dawn in a forest of majestic Southwest Georgia pines. The purple, pink, white, red, blue and yellow flowers of summer are faded, replaced on the forest floor by the softer earth tones of brown pine needles, golden wiregrass and newly budding plants of ochre, amber and russet.
Shafts of morning light burn away a thin mist hugging the ground, revealing a carpet patched with the colors of stained glass. A chorus of birds begins its aubade. There’s a cathedral effect to the moment. It’s no wonder the men and women who live for these piney woods assume a reverential voice in its presence.
“For those of us who work with the longleaf pine, it’s not just about the tree. It’s about the beautiful open savannas, the bluebird skies of South Georgia; it’s about the hundreds of species of wildflowers that grow beneath the forest canopy,” says Lindsay Boring, director of the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichauway, southwest of Albany. The tone of his voice drops from conversational to an almost whisper. “This is an absolutely beautiful landscape and we all connect with that.”
One mission of the Jones Center, where Boring works with nine scientists and 107 other employees, is to spread the gospel of pine forest management as a tool for restoring the longleaf pine, the centerpiece of a 29,060-acre quail hunting preserve-cum-laboratory established in 1929 on the lands of Baker County in rural Southwest Georgia by Coca-Cola magnate Robert W. Woodruff. The huge tract was transformed into the Jones Research Center in the years following Woodruff’s death in 1985. Boring became the center’s first director in 1991.
A provision of Woodruff’s will stipulated the land must stay intact, giving the center a unique place in the study of the longleaf pine forest and its diverse ecosystem.
Georgia claims several different varieties of pine trees, including the slash pine, shortleaf pine and white pine. But the Jones Research Center is devoted to the longleaf pine.
In addition to research, educational programs and the conservation of a large and important pine forest surrounded by waterways and wetlands, the center explores the economic uses of the woodlands that are compatible with preserving its unique character.
The center also advises state leaders on water issues and conducts short courses on ecology and natural resource management. Last year, more than 1,100 students and natural resource professionals came to Ichauway (pronounced Itch-oo-way) for field trips and study. The center maintains eight buildings comprising some 50,000 square feet of workspace on the former plantation.
But Boring and the staff at the Jones Center also are hoping to connect with hundreds of Georgia landowners to help them preserve the region’s longleaf pine forests while using the trees to generate revenue.
At first glance, the idea of planting trees that might take 30 years to reach their economic potential could seem like folly to generations accustomed to instant gratification and quick profits. However, as in the pine forests themselves, much is hidden below the surface.
In prehistory – the time after the dinosaurs but before the arrival of humans – the longleaf pine forest ranged over a 150,000-square-mile area from Virginia to South Florida to Southeastern Texas, in an almost unbroken swath estimated at 92 million acres. Today, only about 1.4 percent of that acreage remains in longleaf pines, the result of man’s entering the forest and, motivated by “need and greed,” clear-cutting it to near extinction.
It may have taken almost 200 years, but man appears to be wising up to the value of restoring these forests, not only for the enrichment of his soul, but also for the fattening of his wallet.
For millennia, the longleaf pine stood at the center of a delicate ecosystem that supported insects, animals and plants in regions more diverse than even the Amazon. Like a modern super mart, these forests could provide man with everything he needed in life – food, water, shelter, transportation and weapons, even medicines. These tall, straight and sturdy trees made excellent ship’s masts in the 18th and 19th centuries. The railroad boom of the late 1800s created a demand for railroad ties that saw entire forests reduced to stumps.
The longleaf is still prized as a source of utility poles and for lumber. Equally valuable are the residents of a properly managed pine forest – deer, turkey and especially the 8-ounce bob white quail. Georgia’s longleaf pine forest owners are discovering their woods are a powerful lure for hunters and ecotourists who are willing to pay handsomely to cast an eye on big bucks or a covey of quail.
In addition, the federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program will pay qualified pine forest owners as much as $45 per acre annually to plant pines on tired agricultural land, providing more incentive for planting and conservation.
Fuel For The Future
Another economic promise for the pinelands is emerging in the form of America’s widening effort to develop alternate fuel sources. Young pine trees are viewed as sources of cellulosic ethanol, whose production is less expensive than ethanol made from corn. And, say the experts, cellulosic biofuels burn cleaner than corn-based ethanol. For scientists who study the longleaf and hope to see a resurgence of the pine forests, cellulosic ethanol appears to be a godsend.
The longleaf pine thrives in open grasslands, and its signature look, akin to that of a bottlebrush, involves a long, straight, limbless lower trunk that can rise 60 feet before sprouting foliage at the very top of the tree. This bit of Mother Nature’s genius opens the forest floor to more sunlight, which in turn nurtures young, growing trees, as well as an unseen world of insect and plant life. Young trees in newly formed stands of pines must be thinned out so the remaining trees have less competition for nutrients from the earth and the life-sustaining force of the sun.
Those trees harvested early in life would make excellent raw product for cellulosic ethanol. “A lot of our challenges in restoring longleaf pine forests to the landscape is that we need to find an economic engine to help fuel that,” Boring says. “I think cellulosic ethanol would provide that fuel.”
If young trees can be harvested for production of cellulosic ethanol, landowners will be better able to afford costs associated with the preservation and enhancement of pine forests and the flora and fauna that thrive in them, he adds.
The Jones Research Center has developed a business plan to help longleaf pine forest landowners generate revenue while maintaining their properties’ unusual ecosystems. The Ichauway Demonstration Area Business Plan shows a 3.46 percent internal rate of return on a typical 941-acre tract of pines.
“That rate is OK, but not great,” says Kevin McIntyre, the center’s education coordinator. “If your sole interest is economics, then you’re probably not a candidate for this [business plan]. The whole point is that you have this multiple value system that will allow you to bring in some revenue from timber while maintaining a forest where you can go out and hunt, enjoy the aesthetics, birdwatch or do whatever it is you want to do.”
Using the Ichauway Business Plan over a 50-year span begun in 2005, a 914-acre pine forest would produce a cumulative cash flow of $2.4 million. The total asset value would grow from $2.6 million to $5 million, McIntyre says.
A half-century may be a daunting prospect for most investors, but with the great majority of Georgia’s timberlands in private hands – some 22 million of a total 24 million acres – the state has a ready audience for such studies.
One Georgia family, for example, is managing pine forestlands acquired 177 years ago for income, as well as for their aesthetic value.
The Norman family of Colquitt County has been living off the pinelands of Southwest Georgia since 1830, passing down through the years a love of the land and an appreciation of its ability to support generation after generation. Today, 1,500 acres of the family’s land is in longleaf pine forests, and is used primarily for hunting. The Normans lease another 3,000 acres from a timber company to accommodate the hunters that come from all over the country.
“Hunting is perfectly compatible with growing saw-timber,” says John Norman, the 56-year-old master of the hunt and manager of the Normans’ Quail Ridge pine plantation. Hunting at this plantation costs $600 a day per person, and Norman says he will log 750 “gun days” during the ’06-’07 season.
Another Norman family member is in the pine straw business, raking and baling the needles so highly prized by landscapers, who use the commodity for flowerbeds. In all, four branches of the Norman family tree derive income from the pine forest.
At the same time, the Normans are preserving a threatened ecosystem, exactly what the Jones Research Center scientists hope to export to other lands across the South. “A good part of the hunting experience is getting to walk in these woods,” Norman says. “I feel very attached to this land; it’s hard to describe, but I do.”
The Burning Question
Each spring John Norman carefully sets fire to the wiregrass in his pine forest, a practice heartily endorsed by wildlife experts, and one that has sustained these woods since they emerged in the primordial mists some 20,000 years ago.
Lightning bolts that ignited dry pine needles and wiregrass on the forest floor burned away the hardwoods that could grow to choke the life from the pines and their ecosystem. Over time, fire became an ally of the plants and animals in the pine forest and contributed to its successful evolution. In fact, longleaf pine woods have also come to be known as fire-forests.
“The early use of fire by man was for warmth and food preparation,” says Jimmy Atkinson, natural resource manager for the Jones Research Center, and a veteran of 35 years in wildlife management. “The Indians learned early on that wildlife is attracted to a fresh burn. And if you’ve got to be out here … walking through the woods, it’s easier than wading through waist-high grass that could harbor dangers, like rattlesnakes. And there are species of plants on the pine forest floor that need a burn-off to produce seeds.”
The use of prescribed burning in Southern woodlands was not always enthusiastically endorsed, Boring says. In the early 20th century, the U.S. Forest Service strongly disapproved of the practice, resulting in an accumulation of fuels on the floors of Western forests, which, in turn, led to the destructive wildfires that plague that region to this day.
The forestry service’s position on burning was widely opposed and ignored in the South. “Southerners were a hardheaded lot, with their Scots-Irish heritage,” Boring says. “They dug their heels in against the forest service and were persistent and resolute and came out on top. The Feds basically gave up on trying to reform them.”
Today the large number of military installations in the longleaf belt keep the pine forests healthy via fires started by exploding artillery shells and bombs at ordnance test sites.
Just as important are the economic benefits fire brings to the modern Georgia economy. Fires eliminate thick ground growth surrounding pine trees, allowing the seeds tumbling from the pine tops to land, take hold and to grow.
Specific numbers on the longleaf pine are difficult to come by, but Georgia’s pine forests form a “significant” part of the $1.8 billion forestry, fishing and hunting sector of the state’s economy, says the Jones Center’s McIntyre. And, according to the Georgia Forestry Commission’s 2005 Annual Report, more than 25 percent of the state’s 159 counties are either critically dependent or very dependent on the jobs and salaries created by the forestry industry, with the value of pine forests leading the way.
At the Jones Research Center administration offices there’s a cross section of an ancient pine whose growth rings show it to be 394 years old when it was felled. Some towering pines can grow to be 500 years old. To the researchers here, the task of forest management for income and for the preservation of a fast fading community of life is more than a scientific study.
Boring likes to tell friends from the city that his commute to work includes scanning treetops to find perched bald eagles awaiting the sudden movement on the ground or in the water that can signal a meal at hand.
“Sometimes,” he says, “the ties between the scientists, the land managers and the land owners that steward longleaf pine are strengthened by an almost spiritual reverence for the species and the woodlands, and a very deep understanding for the value of it all. All of us who touch these trees are in turn touched by them.”