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Can burning trees be a sign of a good thing? Absolutely
Don GardnerColor
Don Gardner

It was smoky over much of Bryan County last weekend. Conditions were right for prescribed burns, and foresters took advantage.

Longleaf pine was the dominant tree over most of Southeastern North America. The indigenous people of Georgia (translation from the politically correct: Indians) managed the forest with fire, for which the longleaf pine is particularly suited. The seeds of longleaf pine have to be exposed to fire before they will germinate. The Indians frequently burned the forest floor to keep down brush and encourage grasses, which improved forage for deer.

Yes, the Indians ate Bambi.

When Europeans arrived, we harvested most of the longleaf pine and live oak for lumber and shipbuilding, much of it leaving through the Port of Darien. Later, after Dr. Charles Herty showed us how to manage loblolly and slash pine for paper production, the longleaf pine was largely displaced by those two species. Today, two-thirds of Georgia is planted in managed timber.

The advent of Smokey the Bear hammered home the perception that all forest fires were bad. Slash and loblolly did not require fire for cultivation. Allowing pine needles to accumulate in a pine stand was essential if an owner wanted to rake the stand for pine straw. Wildfire was not a good thing. The acreages of longleaf pine continued to shrink from the 90 million acres they covered 300 years earlier. So did populations of wildlife dependent on longleaf forests.

The longleaf forest is one of the most ecologically diverse forest systems in North America. It is the habitat of choice for quail, turkey and deer. The National Wild Turkey Federation has been an effective champion for re-establishment of longleaf forest on private land, and with that work the turkey population is returning. Much of that work is with private-land owners with support from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Fort Stewart has one of the largest plantings of longleaf pine in Georgia. Longleaf pine fits into the mission of Fort Stewart better than other trees because of its affinity for fire. Live-fire training has a way of setting things alight if too much fuel accumulates on the forest floor. Frequent prescribed burns keep the level of fuel on the forest floor low. Frequent burns also encourage the diversity of plant life needed to support wildlife. Fort Stewart has an active endangered-species management program. The longleaf pine is a key to providing the habitat to support Georgia’s endangered species. We plan to see how their endangered-species management is progressing when our master naturalist class pays a visit this April. The pileated-woodpecker and gopher-tortoise programs are a hit with every class.

So when you smell the smoke, know that those prescribed burns serve many purposes, from wildfire control to improving wildlife habitat to returning the land to its most productive and wildlife-diverse state. If you are not into wildlife and out-of-doors stuff, know that those burns assist the training of our troops before we send them downrange and into harm’s way.

A little smoke is hardly an inconvenience worth mentioning.

Gardner is a University of Georgia Extension agent who lives in Bryan County.

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