Okefenokee wildfires clear the way for a new habitat

Okefenokee wildfires clear the way for a new habitat

1 February 2010

published by jacksonville.com

USA —  FOLKSTON – Something good may grow from the wildfires that ravaged the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge nearly three years ago.

Foresters returned to the northwest corner of the 396,000-acre wildlife refuge last week to help the area recover from wildfires that burned in 2007.

But instead of planting slash and pond pines to replace those that burned, foresters planted 52,000 longleaf pine seedlings by hand at the 128-acre tract. The seedlings, about 10 inches tall, were randomly planted 10 to 12 feet apart in the burned area.

The project will accomplish several goals, said Reggie Forcine, a refuge forestry technician.

For more than a decade, refuge officials have slowly cleared upland areas dominated by slash and pond pines and replaced them with longleaf pine seedlings, the trees that once dominated Southeast Georgia. But clearing mature trees and planting seedlings is painstaking, time-consuming work.

Officials want to reintroduce longleaf pine habitat to the Okefenokee because the trees are more resistant to wildfires, and the habitat could be a key to the survival of threatened and endangered species such as the red cockaded woodpecker, which prefers nesting in the trees.

Planting in a burned area gives foresters the freedom to choose the ideal location for planting without having to first cut down trees.

“We wouldn’t have planted this many [if not for the wildfires],” Forcine said.

At least 90 percent of the seedlings will survive and live as long as 400 years, he said.

Refuge manager George Constantino said the wildfires created an opportunity to “speed up the process” of transforming the Okefenokee into a longleaf pine habitat once again.

“There are some real positives that came out of [the wildfires],” Constantino said.

Longleaf pines have already been planted on 32,000 acres at the refuge. It could take as long as 200 years before the project is completed and the refuge is dominated by the trees once again, Constantino said.

“We’ll have many generations of refuge managers and employees involved with this project,” he said. “It’s a challenging opportunity.”

Hundreds of years ago, longleaf pines dominated an estimated 80 million acres in the Southeast. The trees created a habitat described as a “forested prairie,” where a person could ride a horse at a gallop through the woods. The undergrowth included blueberries, ground and runner oaks, wildflowers and wire grass.

But when the trees were cut for timber, foresters replaced them with faster growing species and the undergrowth also changed.

The plants growing in many pine forests – palmettos, shrubs and bushes – are called “ladder fuels” that burn quickly and increase the possibility trees will be destroyed during a wildfire.

“It’s helping us have a fire-resistant forest,” Constantino said of the project. “It will improve the view for visitors and increase the number of species.”

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