Tag Archives: longleaf pine


Clearcutting the Longleaf Forest: EcoShakespeare

EcoShakespeare is a series of expeditions into uniquely north Florida/ south Georgia ecosystems.  Each adventure is led by a master of their field and includes a scene performed from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that relates to the trip.  Florida State University English professor Dr. Bruce Boehrer ties Shakespeare’s words to our local habitats, creating a one of  kind blending of art and nature.  Part one takes place in a secret, ancient forest…

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Jim Cox is the Vertebrate Ecology Program Director at Tall Timbers Research Station (he's the one not holding the camera).  Based north of Tallahassee, Tall Timbers has studied the longleaf habitat, and its dependence on fire, for over 50 years.

Jim Cox is the Vertebrate Ecology Program Director at Tall Timbers Research Station (he’s the one not holding the camera). Based north of Tallahassee, Tall Timbers has studied the longleaf habitat, and its dependence on fire, for over 50 years.

We begin this EcoShakespeare project, appropriately enough, in a longleaf forest that exists much as it did during the time of William Shakespeare.  The “Big Woods,” as Tall Timbers’ Jim Cox calls them, sit on private land.  Few people will ever get the privilege to walk under those ancient longleaf pines, in one of the few places where Henslow’s sparrows and red cockaded woodpeckers are relatively easily seen.  And it’s one of the few places where you might find longleaf pines that lived while the Bard’s plays were being penned.

You can see the numbers in the video above.  The American southeast was once covered in 90,000,000 acres of longleaf.  Today we have 3,000,000.  Of that, only 8,000 has never been cut.  Jim compares it to the entire population of the Earth being whittled down to a city the size of Milwaukee.  And while 3,000,000 acres is still a vast reduction from the historic number, it’s much better than 8,000.  So why do we emphasize the especially low acreage of remaining old growth forest?

The immortal king of the fairies, Oberon, stands next to a considerably younger 350 year old (give or take) longleaf pine.

The immortal king of the fairies, Oberon, stands next to a considerably younger 350 year old (give or take) longleaf pine.

It’s something that I can appreciate as I stare down my fortieth birthday next year- a mature longleaf offers more ecosystem services than a young one.  Red cockaded woodpeckers make nests in trees that are over 90 years old.  The heart wood of these older trees is more likely to suffer from red heart disease, a fungus which softens the wood and makes it easier for the woodpeckers, over several generations, to make a cavity.  Jim Cox, answering questions from our adventurers, says the birds’ numbers are looking much better after getting dangerously low.  He attributes this to artificial cavities sawed into less mature trees.  But for the RCW to leave the endangered list, it has to make it without our help.  And for that, we need more mature trees.  The problem with that is that… you have to wait… and wait… and wait… for enough of them to get to that right age.


Another ecosystem service offered by a mature longleaf is its wrinkly face.  As a longleaf ages, its bark becomes gnarlier and rougher.  This creates more surfaces for insects and other invertebrates to inhabit.  And as is true in any ecosystem, those little creepy crawlies are food for all of the much prettier animals that we travel with binoculars to try and spot.  An ecosystem will not thrive if the bottom of the food web is not healthy.

Years ago, when we started EcoAdventures, I accompanied FWC’s Andy Wraithmel and Liz Sparks to several birding spots along the Apalachicola River.  Near sunset, we stopped in the Apalachicola National Forest.  When you drive down State Road 65, you may notice painted white bands on the longleaf pines.  These are trees with RCW cavities, or that have qualities that might attract the rare woodpecker.  We stopped by a cluster of those trees, Liz and Andy admiring the good work that has been done to restore the habitat.

Controlled burn in the Apalachicola National Forest along State Road 65.

Controlled burn in the Apalachicola National Forest along State Road 65.

Looking at the shots of the National Forest that we included in the video above, the differences between it and the “Big Woods” are subtle.  The trees look a little skinnier, perhaps, but even a 500 year old longleaf will never be that much thicker than a young one.  In one shot, you can see the planted rows of slash pine that timber operations started using after having cut the slower growing/ higher quality longleaf.

Andy and Liz talked to me about the thinning of trees (longleaf habitat features widely spaced trees), regular burning, and other restoration activities that have the forest looking a little more like it once had.  But, Andy noted, none of us would be alive to see the forest fully recovered.  Except, maybe, the immortal Oberon and Titania.

Next week, we look at Shakespeare’s upbringing as we forage for food along Lake Iamonia. Also, marital tensions between Oberon and Titania escalate as the king plots with Puck to use the herbs of the forest against the queen.

Special thanks to WFSU’s partners for this EcoShakespeare segment, The Southern Shakespeare Festival and Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy. EcoShakespeare is funded by a grant from WNET’s Shakespeare Uncovered. Catch their take of a Midsummer Night’s Dream Friday, January 30 at 9 pm ET on WFSU-TV. For more information on Shakespeare Uncovered and WFSU’s associated TV and Radio projects, visit our Shakespeare Uncovered web site.
Shakespeare Uncovered is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Major funding is also provided by The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, Dana and Virginia Randt, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, the Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Polonsky Foundation, Rosalind P. Walter, Jody and John Arnhold, the Corinthian International Foundation, and PBS.

The Historical Database Known as Trees (and a new video)

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150I like the idea of hiking cross country, unimpeded, for miles at a time.  Trails are great- and usually safer- but the idea that you can have space to literally walk off the beaten path is appealing.  A couple of hundred years ago, you could travel across the entire southeastern coastal plain in this manner.  This was a road paved by fire.  On this blog, we’ve covered how fire creates the pine flatwoods ecosystem with its widely spaced trees, and how and why mankind has had to replicate a process that had happened naturally.  But how do we know how often to burn, and at what time of year?  It would be convenient if we could ask someone who was around before the area was settled.  As it turns out, we can.

Trees have the answers in their rings.  We get a glimpse of this towards the end of the video above, but I wanted to take a closer look at how Dr. Jean Huffman was able to interpret the data locked within trees.

The photo to the right is a detail of a longleaf pine stump cross-section.  In it you can see that the rings alternate in shading between light and dark.  The light wood is early wood.  This is from the beginning of the growing season, typically spring, when a tree usually grows the fastest.  The growth in the summer and fall is darker, and is called late wood.  Winter is the dormant season.  So one light and one dark ring equal one year of growth for the tree.  You may also notice that some rings are wider than others.  Wide rings indicate a higher rainfall, and especially narrow rings indicate drought.  Knowing this, we can start building a master chronology.

A master chronology is made by comparing the relative width of rings in a series of trees. In this way rings in each tree can be dated exactly, even if there are occasional missing rings or false rings in an individual tree. The master chronology can be used to exactly date the rings in individual stumps.  Since longleaf pine is such a long-lived species, there is potentially hundreds of years’ worth of climatological data in its rings.  When you have data for many trees, you can build a reliable chronology that goes back before people started keeping records.  This is a dendrochronology (dendro= tree, chronology= matching events to specific dates based on historical records).

fire scarFinally, you match years in your chronology to fire scars (that’s a scar to the left).  Longleaf pine are a fire resistant species, and it takes a lot to kill the cambium and create a scar.  Because of this, Jean only created fire histories for periods when she had at least three “recorder” trees- enough to establish a pattern.

She determined that there were frequent fires in the area- every one to three years.  That’s enough to keep oak and other woody plants from encroaching on ground cover plants, including the many rare plants of the SJB State Buffer Preserve.  It was strange to just trample over the grass and palmettos in the managed area, and all of the gems potentially hidden underneath them.  It doesn’t exactly adhere to the “Leave no Trace” ethos.  But the reality is that all of it will burn and go away, and then grow back again, and again, and again…

The video features music by Pitx and Airtone.  Thanks to Dr. Jean Huffman for reviewing my text for accuracy.
Next on EcoAdventures North Florida, we’re going to a place where large chunks of land get swallowed up by the earth, and where a river goes underground.  Of course we mean Aucilla Sinks (Wednesday April 11 at 7:30 PM/ ET on WFSU-TV’s dimensions).

Paddling and Wildlife Watching Around the Apalachicola River

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150In the video above, we spent a day hitting Apalachicola River WEA Paddling Trail System and Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail sites. Luckily for me, I had Liz Sparks and Andy Wraithmell to show me the cool spots and tell me what animals I was looking at. With spring approaching, birds will be migrating back through the area, and the warmer weather makes for better paddling, greener trees with flowers blooming, and more appearances by other critters like alligators and turtles. In other words, it’s time to start planning your own adventures. Continue reading

Why We Burn- Restoring the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
The longleaf pine/ wiregrass ecosystem was historically common in the coastal plain (low lying flat areas adjacent to the coast) of the Southeast United States.  According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, this ecosystem has seen a 97% decline.  In our recent excursion along the Apalachicola River, we visited this habitat and learned about efforts to restore it.

IGOR chip- habitat 150

There’s a certain terminology we use when we talk about the wild places of the world. We use words like “pristine,” or “untouched.”  When you hike through a forest along the Florida Trail, there are times where you can imagine that you are the first person ever to walk under the trees that you see.  Of course, much of the time, not only are you not the first person to have seen the trees, the trees look the way they do due to someone’s careful manipulation.  The practice of land management and why it is used can change the way you think about what is “wild.”

Prescribed burn. Courtesy of Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The video above is about how the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is using prescribed burning in its restoration of longleaf pine habitats.  Longleaf pine had historically thrived because they have the evolutionary advantage of a thick, fireproof bark in what are known as Fire Climax Communities.  This is a habitat in which fire (typically started by lightning strikes) is the primary controlling factor, and so lesser equipped competitors to longleaf pine are eliminated.  This natural process makes for an ecosystem dominated by the thick barked pines.  So why are humans assuming a role usually played by nature?

That goes back to our conception of what is “wild.”  That forest you hike through looks untouched, like I said earlier, but human influence reaches even into its deepest reaches.  For one, we have roads cutting across the forests, and while there are often large expanses of unbroken forest, paved roads keep fire from spreading as far as it once might have.  Another factor is that there is human settlement all around the forest, and uncontrolled fire is a threat to life and property.

Courtesy of the Florida Archive.

Prescribed fire is one tool in the toolset for restoring the longleaf/ wiregrass system.  This was the dominant habitat of the southeast, characterized by a wide spacing of trees (wide enough to ride a wagon through, FWC’s Liz Sparks tells me) that allows for a diversity of ground cover plants.  These cover plants, as Matt points out in the video above, are attractive to the many species that thrive in a longleaf/ wiregrass ecosystem. Ironically, this ecosystem has been drastically reduced as a result of another type of land management- silviculture. As you’ll see in the video above, timber operations replaced longleaf  for slash pine, a faster growing variety of pine with a lesser quality wood but that is far more profitable to grow. The slash pine grew closer together, eliminating the ground cover that is so important to the many birds, reptiles, and amphibians that make the longleaf/ wiregrass system so diverse. That’s why FWC does timber thinning before the burns.

Marsh burn. Courtesy Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

And since this is In the Grass, On the Reef, I did want to mention something I left out of the video, which is marsh burns.  Every 4-6 years, they burn the sawgrass in the freshwater marshes on the Apalachicola River system.  This clears the plants out and allows for new growth; the less dense grass provides nesting cover for many birds.  Wintering waterfowl like canvasback, scaup, and redhead eat submerged vegetation called widgeon grass; periodic burns increase access to this for birds.  As with longleaf ecosystems, fire was a naturally occurring, controlling factor.  The systems evolved with the plants and animals that could best take advantage of these fire events.  Nature may not be able to provide fire to these systems as effectively as it once had; luckily, mankind has flame throwers and ping pong balls full of potassium permanganate.

For more information about these and other Florida Fish and Wildlife land management initiatives, visit their web site.

Watch our latest EcoAdventure, where we visit a lot of this managed land around the Apalachicola River on WFSU’s dimensions– Sunday, February 19 at 10:00 AM/ ET.

Good Fire- watch now!

Watch Good Fire on PBS. See more from WFSU Documentary.

This WFSU documentary, which aired November 30, 2011, takes an in depth look at prescribed burning and its safety and ecological benefits. The video is running off of WFSU-TV’s video on demand site, which features PBS programs like NOVA and Nature as well as local programs, like In the Grass, On the Reef and Florida War Diaries, a look at our local involvement in WWII.