From One Forest to Another



Some of the most intense ecosystem management in the United States happens behind the secure gates of our military bases.  Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base in North Carolina may not evoke thoughts of scenic streams and woodlands, but managers there are, in many ways, leading the charge for restoring diverse native ecosystems. They’re undertaking forest conversion in order to recover an endangered species, meet management objectives, and restore an ecosystem thats rapidly dwindling.

The loss of the Southeast’s longleaf pine savannas and forests, from approximately 92 million acres to now less than 3 million acres, remains an under-appreciated environmental tragedy. Not only have the forests disappeared, but also the thriving plant and animal populations making up this ecosystem and the fires that shaped it. After 200 years of forest gentrification, scientists and land managers, including those on military bases, have realized that restoring these longleaf pine forests and their associated native plant communities is the answer to meeting ever increasing resource demands. 

Forests on bases are expected to produce more than clean air and water. They’re also training sites for soldiers and sources of revenue, through the harvest of wood products. They provide recreation for soldiers and their families, and they’re home to endangered species that need protection.

At Camp Lejeune, many of the upland forest stands are currently composed of mature loblolly pine that managers regularly harvest for timber and fiber. Loblolly pine is considered “off-site” in these sandy, well-drained soils, but the mature trees also house recovering populations of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. As a habitat specialist, red-cockaded woodpeckers prefer native, longleaf pine over the loblolly, but converting one forest to another without adversely affecting the successful recovery of an endangered species is a bit like re-modeling a kitchen without upsetting the busy chef. Retaining habitat features and ecosystem function must be carefully considered.

Palmetto fruit under loblolly pines. Photo by Bryan Mudder.

To find out how best to make the transition, the military turned to forest scientists.

Southern Research Station plant ecologist Joan Walker and Clemson University professor Geoff Wang designed a study to evaluate various silvicultural techniques for restoring longleaf pine to sites currently occupied by mature stands of loblolly pine without interrupting the biological processes at work. Silviculture, simply put, is the art and science of sustainably growing trees to meet the objectives of the landowner. The objectives in this case are to maintain suitable red-cockaded woodpecker habitat while continuing to provide training sites for soldiers, recreational hunting opportunities, and producing wood products, clean air, and clean water. 

The field experiment involved levels of canopy removal that ranged from minimal removal–leaving a relatively dense canopy–to the complete removal of all trees. After 3 years of data collection, results of the study indicate that removing the canopy improves early establishment of longleaf pine seedlings. Results also indicate that applying herbicide to reduce shrubs and hardwoods may increase early longleaf pine seedling growth.  Available light was found to be the single most important environmental factor in survival and early growth of seedlings on Camp Lejeune experimental sites.

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