By 1930, the golden age of lumbering was over. “In about 25 years, millions of acres of old-growth forests had been harvested,” says U.S. Forest Service emeritus scientist James Barnett. “Land once covered with majestic stands of longleaf pines had become vast ‘stumpscapes.’”
Cutover forests were bare, with little prospect of regeneration. Forests had been clearcut with gigantic steam-powered skidders that destroyed all standing trees. In many areas, no seed trees remained.
At the time, most lumbermen saw no benefit in leaving small trees or seed trees. “They were harvesting 200 year old trees,” says Barnett. “They couldn’t fathom growing another crop.”
Henry Hardtner of the Urania Lumber Company was the first lumberman to advocate for reforestation.
As early as 1905, Hardtner believed cutover land could provide a second crop within 60 years. “Hardtner was a visionary,” says Barnett. “In the early 1900s, many lumbermen thought replanting was a publicity stunt.”
Hardtner became the leading advocate for reforestation. He told his employees to leave trees less than a foot in diameter, and to leave four seed trees per acre. He also began protecting his stands from disturbances like wildfire and rooting hogs. Hardtner developed close ties to the Forest Service, and a number of FS foresters visited the Urania Lumber Company.
Barnett wrote about Hardtner and others in a recent General Technical Report that also explores the era’s historic context. The Civil War had recently ended, and millions of formerly enslaved people were landless and destitute. The South’s economy was in shambles.
“As the Nation expanded westward, the demand for lumber was enormous,” says Barnett. “Huge amounts of wood were needed to build railroad cross ties, bridges, and trestles. And old-growth forests in the northern U.S. were depleted.”
It probably seemed fortuitous that the federal government was selling millions of acres in the Gulf Coast states. Much of this land was covered in virgin longleaf pine and cost as little as $1.25 an acre.
“Lumbering became the economic driver for the recovery of the region,” says Barnett. Sawmills flourished. In Louisiana, as many as 1,300 sprung up in the early 20th century, and there was a mill in almost every town.
For a while, the mills were a huge employer. However, within 20 years, most of them had harvested all the nearby timber and closed. “Many mill towns became ghost towns,” says Barnett.
Some of the largest sawmills in the world were in Louisiana, such as the Great Southern Lumber Company at Bogalusa. At its peak, the Great Southern Lumber Company’s mill produced up to one million board feet of lumber each day.
William Sullivan managed the Great Southern Lumber Company. Sullivan eventually became convinced that Hardtner’s ideas about forest restoration were correct and began to implement them at the Great Southern.
Like Hardtner, Sullivan used natural regeneration when possible. However, he also began developing methods for growing and planting pine seedlings.
Forest Service researcher Philip Wakeley began working with Great Southern in 1924. The Southern Forest Experiment Station – precursor to the Southern Research Station – had only existed since 1921.
Wakeley and his colleagues at Great Southern began studying southern pine restoration. The scientists developed methods for collecting pine seeds and growing seedlings in nurseries, along with technology for planting the seedlings.
Great Southern’s forestry program ended during the Great Depression, but Wakeley’s work continued. By 1934, Wakeley was conducting research at the newly established Stuart Nursery. The nursery was located in the Kisatchie National Forest, LA. Eventually, the nursery produced 25 million seedlings a year.
Unfortunately, longleaf pine is more difficult to regenerate than other southern pines. Once cut down, longleaf pine forests could not easily be replaced.
In hindsight, the loss of millions of acres of virgin longleaf pine forests was an ecological catastrophe. However, the region had few other resources, and people needed work. “Lumbering helped the South recover economically after the Civil War,” says Barnett.
Barnett followed in Wakeley’s footsteps and spent his career developing reforestation practices. Barnett and other SRS scientists eventually developed guidelines for longleaf pine regeneration – including how to grow longleaf pine seedlings in containers, a question that had baffled experts for decades.
“There’s hope that the longleaf pine ecosystem will continue to expand,” says Barnett. “It is an economic asset, as well as a recurring vision of the beautiful and inspiring forests that once covered so much of the South’s forested landscape.”
For more information, email James Barnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.