Longleaf pine forests once stretched across the Southeast, spanning more than 90 million acres from Virginia to Texas.
Today, the U.S. Forest Service estimates only 4.3 million acres of longleaf pine forests remain, and many of those strands are in poor condition. However, efforts are underway to restore and expand these vital ecosystems that once dominated the Alabama landscape.
Among those involved is Chris Wyatt, a forester for Alabama Power. Earlier this month, Wyatt oversaw a prescribed burn near Smith Mountain on Lake Martin.
“Longleaf pines forests used to cover this entire area,” Wyatt said. “The reason a lot of places don’t have it anymore is the lack of fire. A longleaf ecosystem has to have fire to maintain itself.”
The fire removes underbrush, allows sunlight to reach the forest floor and encourages the growth of plants native to longleaf systems.
“By burning, we are getting rid of what’s not supposed to be here,” Wyatt said.
Duff, which is dead plant material like leaves, bark, needles and twigs, builds up over the years without fire. Prescribed burning removes that buildup and allows seeds long buried to start to grow.
“The seed bank is here. It will last 75 to 100 years. We just have to get rid of all the duff and pine straw,” Wyatt said. “We are reducing the duff layer, and we are reducing the competition – that’s the main thing.”
A healthy and mature longleaf pine forest will have a diverse understory of native grasses, legumes and forages that’s ideal for wildlife, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
“This area hadn’t been burned for so long. We are now working to maintain and restore the forests,” Wyatt said. “Eventually, we will have to remove some of the trees to get even more sunlight on the ground, but the main thing right now is to get these trees conditioned to being burned again.”
Certain weather conditions are needed for prescribed burning. The best time to burn is after a recent rain with enough wind to keep the fire moving but not so strong as to jump firebreaks.
Removing all the duff, which Wyatt said was once as tall as 18 inches on some trees, will take multiple burns.
“If you come in here and you take all the layer off at one time, you’ve killed all the feeder roots of the tree. We are coming in here with a good northwest wind and just taking off one and a half to two inches. We’ll come back in two or three years and do the same thing,” Wyatt said.
The forester often gets asked how fire can be healthy for trees. Wyatt said some of that thinking goes back to the “only you can prevent forest fires” campaigns that began in 1940s.
“You had Smokey the Bear come along, and that was one of the worst things for the longleaf forest system,” Wyatt said. “It said fire was bad, but it’s not. Fire is the only way to promote this ecosystem. We are using fire to restore the biodiversity that was once here.”