Coastal Plain Forests: The Next 50 Years

Subregional report from the Southern Forest Futures Project

by Rod Truesdell, SRS Science Delivery Group
The Southern Coastal Plain’s 188 million acres span from Texas to Virginia.

The Southern Coastal Plain’s 188 million acres span from Texas to Virginia.

What will our Southern coastal forests look like in 50 years? With a myriad of factors involved—including climate change, population growth, economic outlooks, and more—it’s not a simple question. However, forest researchers have provided what they believe is a comprehensive answer to that question in the new general technical report Outlook for Coastal Plain Forests.

The report is the third in a series of five subregional reports on the forests of the South compiled by scientists for the Southern Forest Futures Project (Futures Project), a multi-agency effort led by the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS). CompassLive has already highlighted the reports written for the Appalachian-Cumberland Highland and Piedmont subregions. The Coastal Plain report’s authors are Kier Klepzig, SRS assistant director of research; retired silviculturist Richard Shelfer, formerly with the Forest Service’s Southern Region office in Tallahassee, FL; and Zanethia Choice, natural resources specialist with the SRS Center for Bottomland Hardwoods Research in Stoneville, MS.

As the name implies, the Coastal Plain subregion encompasses the South’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts, its 188 million acres stretching from the Virginia coastal plain southward through the Florida peninsula, then along the Gulf coast to Texas. (A single “cut-out” from the region, along and immediately west of the Mississippi River, makes up the Mississippi Alluvial Valley subregion.) The Coastal Plain area also extends as far inland as western Kentucky.

Not surprisingly, with a region this large and varied, producing an all-encompassing outlook was a challenge. However, during public input sessions conducted in cities across the region, Futures Project investigators did find regionwide consensus on several issues deemed important to residents and stakeholders.

With input from these sessions considered, the Coastal Plain subregional report details a range of scenarios expected to affect the region in the next 50 years.

  • Temperatures are likely to increase. Researchers used several scenarios to model future climate; the scenarios combined results from four global circulation models with two “emission storylines” involving higher or lower rates of economic and population growth. Each scenario indicates warming across the entire Coastal Plain by 2060. One scenario predicts average temperatures nearly 5 °F higher across parts of the region in 50 years. Results were inconclusive regarding annual precipitation changes, but warmer temperatures alone would stress the forest environment, notably in water availability.   

    Invasive cogongrass, already thriving along the central Gulf coast, could spread throughout the Coastal Plain by 2060. Photo by Chris Evans, courtesy of

    Invasive cogongrass, already thriving along the central Gulf coast, could spread throughout the Coastal Plain by 2060. Photo by Chris Evans, courtesy of


  • Rising oceans may damage millions of forested acres. With the world warming, models show sea-level rise ranging from around a foot to as much as 6 feet above current mean sea level—or even higher, depending on the assumptions used. A projected rise of 1.5 meters (about 5 feet) would affect some 3.7 million acres of Coastal Plain forests, with saltwater intrusion harming coastal forests and wildlife.


  • Urbanization will significantly reduce forested land. By 2060, urban development may reduce forest land by nearly 18 million acres in the Coastal Plain. Peninsular Florida will experience the largest urban growth in the entire South, with forests expected to dwindle there by 34 percent.


  • Population will rise. The report predicts a 68-percent increase in Coastal Plain population. This increase, especially near public lands and water, would put added pressure on limited recreational resources.


  • Fresh water will be in demand. The combination of higher temperatures, reduced forest land, and a larger population will combine to increase water stress regionwide.


  • Biodiversity will decrease, while invasive species spread. Rising sea levels and urbanization will contribute to the loss of some native animal and plant species. Meanwhile, expected increases in the impacts of invasive plants—particularly of notoriously aggressive cogongrass—would degrade the benefits provided by Coastal Plain forests.


Other report findings include the potential for increased forest harvest for biomass-based energy, shifts in habitat range for various plant and animal species (native and invasive), and longer wildfire seasons. Despite uncertainties in some findings, one thing is certain—the South’s coastlines will look very different in 50 years.

 Read the full text of the report.

For more information, email Kier Klepzig at

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Posted in Climate Change, Economics & Policy, Invasive Plants, Longleaf Pines, Southern Pines

Partnership with Florida A&M Sparks New Research

by Sarah Farmer, SRS Science Delivery Group
The Apalachicola National Forest, Florida, is the focus of some of the newly funded research projects. Photo by Nate Steiner, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Apalachicola National Forest, Florida, is the focus of some of the newly funded research projects. Photo by Nate Steiner, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) has a longstanding partnership with Florida A&M University, one of the largest historically black universities in the U.S. In 2014, the SRS funded three new projects at the University’s Center for Water and Air Quality.

“These were seed funds to spark research related to Florida’s forested watersheds – especially in the panhandle region,” says Johnny Grace III, a research engineer at the SRS Forest Watershed Science unit. Grace’s research aims to understand the effects of natural and artificial disturbances on forest watersheds, and he is substantially involved with each of the three projects, providing technical guidance, project monitoring, and quality assurance. In addition to Florida A&M, partners include the National Forests in Florida and private companies.

One of the newly funded projects, led by Florida A&M professor Y.P. Hsieh, will involve sampling soil and nutrient accumulation rates, as well as sulfur chemistry in ephemeral wetlands. The results will indicate environmental quality in the wetlands and surrounding drainage basins. Other projects will examine the seed bank in forest soils and vegetation management in the Apalachicola National Forest, and establish an outdoor classroom. These projects are led by Florida A&M professors O.S. Mbuya and Alfredo Lorenzo.

“One of the key components of the projects, and one of the most attractive aspects for SRS is the involvement of students from non-traditional programs,” says Grace. Both undergraduate and graduate students are involved in many aspects of each project. “These students will become the natural resource professionals and scientists of the future,” says Grace. “Enhancing students’ understanding and experience of natural resource issues, as well as Forest Service research, can only result in an enhanced future workforce. Both the Florida A&M community and the Southern Research Station benefit from the partnership.” 

For more information, contact Johnny Grace at

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Posted in Forest Watersheds

Pro-B: A Practical Management Tool for Implementing Selection Silviculture

by Zoё Hoyle, SRS Science Delivery Group
A longleaf pine stand on the flatwoods of Goethe State Forest in north central Florida treated with single-tree selection using the Pro-B method. Photo by Dale Brockway.

A longleaf pine stand on the flatwoods of Goethe State Forest in north central Florida treated with single-tree selection using the Pro-B method. Photo by Dale Brockway.

Pro-B, a method developed by U.S. Forest Service research, helps make uneven-aged management of longleaf pine and other forest types a practical and efficient option for landowners and managers. A recent field study showed that after less than three hours of training on the Pro-B (proportional basal area) method, managers were able to accurately mark stands using only a single marking pass.

Dale Brockway, research ecologist with the Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) Longleaf Pine Restoration and Management unit, worked with SRS emeritus scientist Ken Outcalt and Auburn University’s Ed Loewenstein (formerly of the Forest Service Northern Research Station) to create a technique that managers can easily use to apply uneven-aged management in the forest. Pro-B may be used to implement selection silviculture in a variety of forest types in the Southeast, elsewhere in North America, and perhaps on other continents as well.

Uneven-aged management (single-tree selection and group selection) is sometimes considered the more “natural” way to manage forests and involves selecting trees to harvest based on values such as protecting native plant communities, maintaining continuous forest canopy cover through time, and facilitating the development of large, old trees while providing a reliable supply of quality timber products.

“In the past, longleaf pine was mostly managed with even-aged methods such as shelterwood, and even thought to be too intolerant for uneven-aged silviculture, though recent evidence suggests that it’s a viable alternative,” said Brockway. “Even-aged methods were better developed than uneven-aged approaches, and earlier uneven-aged methods seemed to be too complicated and constraining for longleaf pine management.”

The researchers developed a method based on basal area, the cross-sectional area at breast height (4.5 feet) of all trees summed per unit area within a stand. Pro-B apportions stand basal area into a 1:2:3 ratio among three broad tree diameter classes, combining smaller diameter classes into three ecological and product-relevant categories. This requires tree markers to remember only three fractions as they mark the fraction of trees that should be removed in each broad diameter class.

The researchers conducted a study on two longleaf pine site types (flatwoods and uplands) in 18 stands on the Florida Coastal Plain to examine the effects of applying Pro-B on pine regeneration, stand development, and volume growth while observing how easily the method could be learned by managers from a range of professional backgrounds.

Results from two training workshops held in 2006, which included field applications where managers marked trees to be harvested, confirmed the ease of learning and using the Pro-B method, and preliminary findings about its treatment effects are promising.

“Early results show that using Pro-B, managers achieved the target residual basal area with a high level of precision,” said Brockway. “Although our results suggest that Pro-B is an effective method for applying uneven-aged management to longleaf pine stands, one or more cutting cycles will be needed before its regeneration success can be more fully evaluated.”

Pro-B allows managers to retain large trees that enhance structural diversity and improve wildlife habitat, and to leave trees with abundant seeds or good form while removing less desirable trees and adjusting the spacing among retained trees. Pro-B provides guidance for thinning toward a stable stand structure while allowing for periodic removal of high quality forest products on a 10 to 15-year cutting cycle.

For more information, email Dale Brockway at

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Posted in Forest Landowners, Forest Operations, Forest Products, Longleaf Pines, Restoration