The Georgia-Alabama Land Trust is proud to be a project participant in a national conservation program recently announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

On Friday, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced $720 million in nationwide funding for another round of conservation projects in 50 states. This funding is a continuation of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), first funded by the federal government in the 2014 Farm Bill. Under this program, the USDA teams with several conservation groups, including the Land Trust, to preserve open space and natural habitats.

In last year’s funding, $1.25 million dollars were specifically allocated toward a 2,300 acre protection project near Fort Stewart, which the Land Trust is in the process of finalizing. That project not only furthers the Department of Agriculture’s RCPP program, it also contributes to a low-density, compatible use buffer surrounding Fort Stewart.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

“It’s important for us to maintain the installation where we can train the way we fight, but not be constrained with a worry of smoke or noise or dust going off the installation [and impacting our neighbors],” said Tim Beaty, Chief of Fish & Wildlife at Ft. Stewart.

“Restoration is also part of this project,” said Executive Director Katherine Eddins, “ restoring and maintaining the long leaf pine that once dominated the landscape has helped bring back the red-cockaded woodpecker, the indigo snake and the gopher tortoise. We are so excited to continue to work with Fort Stewart and surrounding land owners on this important conservation mission. “

“We put out a call for innovative and results-focused projects that will deliver the most conservation impact,” Secretary Vilsack said. “Our partners answered with creative, locally-led approaches to help producers support their ongoing business operations and address natural resource challenges in their communities and across the nation.”

The Georgia-Alabama Land Trust has been working with Fort Stewart for many years and is directly responsible for protecting over 30,000 acres of land surrounding the installation.

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In case you missed it, the Georgia Land Trust and Fort Stewart were recently highlighted by the New York Times for their cooperative conservation work on and around Fort Stewart through the Army’s Compatible Use Buffer (ACUB) Program. ACUB seeks to limit the complications arising from residential development encroaching on the base (for obvious reasons, military training exercises and community developments don’t mix) and to improve on the Army’s record of conservation. The program has been key in protecting a number of threatened species, such as the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, Gopher Tortoise and the habitats they call home, such as the Longleaf Pine – Wiregrass Savannas which used to be common across the South. If you want to read the New York Times article, you can find it here. However, gaining a full understanding of why the Georgia Land Trust and Fort Stewart find protecting land in this area important, and those habitats and species unique to it requires  some understanding of the region’s ecological history.

Image credit: Appalachian Woods

Historically speaking, Longleaf Pine Savannas were the dominant ecosystem of the Coastal Plain Southeast. At the time of Hernando DeSoto’s first European incursion into Southeastern interiors, Longleaf Pine Savannas stretched from Virginia to Eastern Texas, an ecosystem entirely unbroken over 2,000 miles except by the wide expanses of the Mississippi River. The naturalist William Bartram, roaming the Southeast in the 1780s and 90s, described the region as “a forest of the great long-leaved pine, the earth covered with grass, intersped with an infinite variety of herbaceous plants and embellished with extensive savannas, always green, sparkling with ponds of water.” These glowing commentaries might be surprising to the modern observer ranging over these same areas, who would see only densely planted stands of loblolly, slash and shortleaf pine, overgrown with juvenile hardwoods and  thickets of woody shrubs, the worst being the dreaded chinese privet, which renders navigation in some pine stands impossible. Considering this, it’s hard to imagine the open parks described.

The "catfaces" notched to get resin for the turpentine industry.

Yet they were there, and it took several hundred years to slowly force the longleaves to retreat into their current, vestigial pockets. First came the Tarheels, who cut and burned swathes of forest to produce tar for the naval stores industry. Then came the turpentiners, the second use for pines for naval stores, whose notching “catfaces” into the sides of the pines often killed the tree and exposed them to fire, against which adult trees were generally immune. Finally, the pulpwood industry pushed the longleaf back into 5% of their original range by preferentially selecting the faster growing loblolly, shortleaf and slash pine for use in their plantations. The nascent economies of the Southeast, often perceived as having grown up on cotton and tobacco, were as much built around the bounty of the Longleaves. Finally, as timber companies began divesting themselves of some of their vast landholdings, sprawling neighborhoods consumed large areas of prime lands. This final assault on the forests of southeast Georgia is one of the key motivations for the ACUB program.

Very few mature Longleaf Pine forests exist today, and some of those forests are found on Fort Stewart and surrounding lands. The Red-Cockaded Woodpecker and Gopher Tortoise are highly dependent on Longleaf Pine Savannahs. The woodpecker is thought to require anywhere from 60 – 300 acres of pine savannah for foraging, and will only live in the cavities of mature, living pines. The forest floor has to be regularly burned as well. Destruction of mature forests and poor fire management has reduced the number of Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers from more than 1 million birds to somewhere in the vicinity of 12,000 today. Similarly, Gopher Tortoises require the loose, sandy soils of the savanna to dig their burrows, and can’t browse in the woody undergrowth of a poorly fire-managed forest, but require the grasses and leafy plants of an open environment.  Gopher Tortoises too have been reduced across their range. Protecting both species assists more than their species alone, as reduction of their numbers has a multiplying effect across their ecosystem. Gopher Tortoises, for example, have been known to make burrows 40 feet long and nearly 9 feet deep, which is thought to help support 400 further species of animals and plants that rely on their long and deep burrows as both a home and shelter from fires. Some of these species can survive without the Gopher Tortoise, some can’t.

Image credit: Michael Rupert

The protection and management of the Longleaf Pine forests and the species that rely on it are not only important from an environmental standpoint, but also from one of our cultural history. Without their preservation into the future, it might be literally impossible to look across the land and understand the South as it used to be.

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If you would like to participate in the protection of your longleaf forest, other ecologically important lands, or lands around the Fort Stewart area in general, contact the Georgia Land Trust at: (912) 231-0507 or read more about us at galandtrust.org.

Sources:

http://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/ja/ja_rudolph013.pdf

http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/publications/pwdpubs/media/pwd_bk_w7000_0013_red_cockaded_woodpecker_mgmt.pdf

http://georgiawildlife.dnr.state.ga.us/content/displaypressrelease.asp?ArticleID=1318

Though not specifically used for this article, it borrows heavily from the experience of reading Lawrence Early’s Looking for Longleaf; The Fall and Rise of an American Forest, found here.