Daybreak in the Longleaf Pine Forest
14 March 2015: Morning light pouring into a longleaf pine forest finds filmmaker Jeff Reed dangling 25 feet off the ground, suspended in his tree-climbing harness, steadying the long range zoom lens on his RED Epic camera. A small missile darts from a silver dollar-sized hole in the trunk of an adjacent pine tree. Reed tracks it with his lens, and below him a group of onlookers set aside coffee mugs and press binoculars to upturned faces. In moments we hear the telltale call of a red-cockaded woodpecker. Her brood emerges minutes later, following from tree to tree as they forage for insects along the massive trunks. Flakes of bark leap from the canopy as they work, calling to each other incessantly.
The red-cockaded woodpecker is a central character in the story of the longleaf pine ecosystem. Reed and his colleagues from Grizzly Creek Films have accompanied the 2015 #Glades2Gulf Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition throughout its 10 weeks and 1000 miles. The many days of hiking, paddling, and biking the corridor have lead the expedition into the far western corner of Florida, where we’ve come into a landscape richer in biodiversity than almost any in the world. The story of these woodpeckers is just one window into an ecosystem that once spanned 90 million acres of the Southeastern United States, and yet by dint of its disappearance, now is host to perhaps 100 species of concern and 20 federally listed endangered species. Many authors have reported on the floral and faunal diversity of these systems.
A Contiguous Longleaf Corridor
The clutch of “RCWs” we documented that morning is in Blackwater River State Forest, which totals roughly 210,000 acres in Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties. The state forest is named for the Blackwater River, which meanders 30 miles southwestward through gently rolling sandy hills to drain into Blackwater Bay northeast of Pensacola, Florida. Blackwater River State Forest is noted for its longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystem. When combined with Eglin Air Force Base bordering to the south and Conecuh National Forest to its north this hub of longleaf-wiregrass is the largest contiguous ecological community of the type in the world.
Restoring Habitat on a Continental Scale
The longleaf-wiregrass system is intact in under 5% of its 90 million-acre range. Longleaf pine ecosystems were the principal ecosystems in a belt of land stretching about 2000 miles along the southeastern margin of the North American continent. The “Big Cut” commenced in the post-Civil War years, and left behind a vast “sea of stumps” as industrialization swept the United States. Once removed the longleaf were not replanted, and fire, on which longleaf depends, was excluded. Lower quality, faster growing substitutes like slash pine (Pinus elliottii) and loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) were planted and grown in plantation rows.
In recent weeks the focus of the expedition has fallen on what’s being done to restore the longleaf pine forest across its Florida range. Over the past weeks we’ve met with numerous agencies and individuals, non-profit and for-profit organizations, all of whom share an interest in returning the longleaf to a bit of its former glory. M.C. Davis, a timber landowner in Walton County (think Destin) conservation and restoration of the inland forest corridor has become a life’s work. Davis owns the 51,000-acre Nokuse Plantation between a major river corridor to the east and Eglin Air Force Base to the west. Over the last 15 years Davis, with the help of Nokuse’s director Matt Aresco, have planted over 8 million longleaf seedlings on 22,000 acres areas where they’ve removed – by clearcutting – slash pine, loblolly pine, and sand pine plantation. Inspired by the teachings of his friend and mentor Dr. E.O. Wilson, Davis has adopted a longview on what he wants to leave behind on his land. He was quoted in a recent article by author Tony Hiss saying ““I tell people we’re in Year 13 of a 300-year program. I could easily make 1,000 acres look beautiful, but the extinction clock’s ticking, so I decided to take on the bigger challenge.”
26 February 2015: We stand looking over a rolling hill country on a dreary February morning, the temperature stubbornly cool under an overcast sky. The wind whips up the swale we’re standing in, whistling through the big pine trees above us. We face north, looking toward a different forest that borders the stand we’re in; a young swatch of spindly pines, which from a distance appear as a lush carpet of green needles, cover the hills to the north and east. And further, a mile away, beyond the young trees, we see the red scar of freshly-scalped earth. The multiple stages of closely-managed forest succession are framed in one view.
Tyler Macmillan gestures at the succeeding layers of restoration. Macmillan works for the Northwest Florida Water Management District, one of 5 such districts throughout the state that provide flood protection and water quantity/quality monitoring. Especially in Northwest Florida, that task obligates Macmillan and his agency to managing the forests that populate each watershed. Their contractors are clearcutting sand pines, a less desirable wood that’s been planted in rows all over the sandy hills of Northwest Florida, and re-planting the native longleaf pines in high densities, trying to reset the process that leads to old stands of longleaf. Revenue from the sale of the sand pine pulp facilitates the re-planting, which abandons the old methods of planting in unnatural rows.
The restoration process is not pretty. In his article Hiss likened the reforestation sites at Nokuse Plantation to construction zones. The process is slow, requiring years to establish proper fire regimes.The beauty of these places is in imagining what they will be in 80 to 100 years.
“We know we will come back in and thin most of these stands but we’ll never do another clearcut, because we’re not doing this for revenue. Our goal is to restore what’s here, the native habitat,” says Tyler Macmillan, nodding at the 80-100 year old trees around us, “the longleaf pine and wiregrass habitat.”