Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Longleaf Pine Project

“The emotion of standing in an ancient grove of longleaf pine can perhaps best be described as spiritual. Wind stirring through the tops of the 350 year old trees, the perfume of pine resin, the sounds of birds scurrying about through a lush carpet of grass cause the visitor to draw in a breath of awe and suggest that something this magnificent was surely not created by accident.” (1)

The Big Thicket is a very large, diversified area, but its longleaf pine forests have dwindled greatly over the years. These majestic trees once covered an area that spanned from Virginia down to Florida and then west to Texas. Now there’s less than 3% of this previous range left due to aggressive, unmanaged harvesting over many years. Of all the southern pine species this one has the longest of life spans reaching upwards of 250 years. Some living even longer than that, but these old-growth ecosystems are few and far between.

This tree, compared to other pines, is the most resilient.

~It has a higher resistance to insect attack southern pine beetle, pine tip moth.

~Its wood is dense and strong rendering it less likely to be blown over by strong winds like other pines, such as slash and loblolly which were laid to waste in areas of the Big Thicket when the abrasive winds of hurricane Ike and Rita came through this area.

It is more tolerant to fire- in fact, it needs fire for its perpetuation. Natural fires, mostly caused by lightning, not only reduces competition by culling the growth of understory hardwoods and but also clears out ground litter, exposing and creating fertile soil for seed germination. (2)

It is has a higher resistance to diseases such as root rot and fusiform rust.

The one thing it is not resistant to though is the much maligned feral pig, which unearth these trees during the “grass stage” of its growth to feed on the tender buds and roots.

It is also important to wildlife in several ways:

This tree also plays a pivotal role in the survival of the red-cockeded woodpecker, which depends primarily on the longleaf for its nest site. Where other woodpeckers bore out cavities in rotted snags, these excavate theirs in this living tree. It is more resinous than other pines and the woodpecker utilizes this by boring holes or “sap wells” directly below the entrance to the cavity allowing this resin to ooze down. This acts as a defense mechanism or “resin barrier” impeding the movement of climbing predators- specifically rat snakes, which are its main predator. The detriment of this tree has caused this bird to become a threatened species.

Its seeds provide food for birds and mammals, and needed habitat for white-tail deer, bobwhite quails, turkey, and fox squirrels.

Texas trailing phlox is only found in the pineywoods of East Texas and not only grows in association with longleaf pines, but like these trees, is also well adapted to fire. As the pines began to disappear so did the phlox, which caused its endangerment to the point that it was once thought to be extinct. It was rediscovered later and then listed as a federally endangered species.

Back in January I will spent the day with many other volunteers to try and right this wrong and help bring back this once prolific tree and in turn help the plants and animals that rely on it.

I arrived at the Big Thicket National Preserve Visitor Center at around 9:15 a.m. to help with the longleaf pine restoration project headed up by the National Parks Conservation Association.

We were in the field most of the day planting longleaf pine seedlings in an area that at one time was a longleaf pine forest. These old-growth pines were eventually harvested and replaced with the quicker growing, but lesser resilient loblolly and slash pine.

This area was later obtained from a lumber company and added into the Big Thicket Preserve. The Nature Conservancy, along with the help of Temple-Inland Forest Products Corporation began trying to restore this plot of land back into a longleaf pine forest back in 1999.

The project is ongoing despite setbacks caused by past hurricanes (Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008), and will continue until the restoration is complete.

Members of the park service gave us a short lecture on the natural history of the longleaf and instructed us on the planting of seedlings using what is known as a “dibbler”, the tool used for perforating the ground to plant them.

We were there from around 10 a.m. until about 4 p.m. and in groups planted a total of 5,344 seedlings scattered over the project area. I recorded the GPS co-ordinates of one particular seedling (see below) that I planted myself.

Hopefully it will be one that survives so that my grand-daughter, in the future, can find this tree and know that it was her grand-father that had planted it. Isn’t that just cool…..

References and Suggested Reading:

1) Quote

2) Longleaf Pine

3) Texas Trailing Phlox

4) The Life of the Longleaf

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