100 Years of Forest Service Research in the South

a person stands among giant trees
High grade sweetgum and tupelo gums by the Apalachicola River in Florida. Photo by Clement Mesavage, Southern Forest Experiment Station.

In 2021, the Southern Research Station and all of USDA Forest Service celebrates the centennial of Forest Service research in the South.

On July 1, 1921, the Forest Service established two new experiment stations. They were modest operations. The Southern Forest Experiment Station, headquartered in New Orleans, Louisiana, had only five employees. The Appalachian Forest Experiment Station in Asheville, North Carolina, had few supplies: one compass, four books, and a few typewriters.

From these humble beginnings, Forest Service research in the South would go on to make enormous contributions to the region. Though the tools and methods have evolved, current research builds on these foundations. In 1995, the early stations merged to become SRS.

Southern forests of the early 1900s were very different than those of today. By 1920, lumbering and farming had stripped steep slopes across the region of their trees. Streams and rivers filled with silt, wildlife disappeared, and exposed soils were washed or blown away.

In the Gulf Coastal Plain, hundreds of millions of acres of pine and hardwood forest had been cleared and burned, often leaving no trees in sight. In the Piedmont, poor farming practices led to erosion so severe that farms were abandoned and carved up by canyon-sized gullies. Bottomland forests in the Mississippi River Valley and coastal wetlands had been cutover and drained.

The devastation demanded public attention and led federal legislators to enact the Weeks Act, which was signed into law by President Taft in 1911. The law allowed the Forest Service to purchase lands for the protection of headwaters and other resources. Eventually, these acquired lands became 52 national forests in 26 eastern states.

However, little was known about returning trees to these devastated landscapes. Even basic knowledge of southern forests was lacking, making it hard for government agencies and landowners to think about the future.

cutover forest
The Palustris Experimental Forest in the mid-1950s. Forest Service photo by Elemore Morgan.

Across the South, forest scientists began studying ways to encourage natural regeneration of desired tree species and to better use the remaining forests. Soil research in the Piedmont of North Carolina and Georgia, as well as northern Mississippi, began immediately after the experiment stations were opened.

Work also began on improving the process of artificial regeneration, which involved collecting seeds, growing them in nurseries, and using the seedlings to reforest barren lands. While today we take this process for granted, progress was slow in the first decade of the Stations’ operation. One pioneering Forest Service researcher, Philip Wakeley, estimated that it would take 900 to 1,000 years to reforest the bare land.

But reforestation would be accomplished in decades rather than centuries, thanks in large part to Forest Service science. Researchers like Wakeley, Russell Reynolds, and many others developed reliable methods for collecting, processing, storing, and planting seeds of the southern pines. Loblolly pine and slash pine proved easier to replant than longleaf pine.

Eventually, researchers discovered how to collect and process longleaf pine seeds, how to grow longleaf pine seedlings in containers, and how to restore entire longleaf pine ecosystems.

Much of the early field research took place on National Forest System lands or on private land. The need for information on growth and yield in unmanaged, second-growth pine stands led to a major effort to develop yield tables that could be used across the South. These tables were released in 1929 and were so helpful that they were used for decades. However, the growth and yield observations from these unmanaged stands were inadequate for addressing some questions. So, beginning in 1925, areas were set aside as living laboratories, or experimental forests.

Bent Creek Experimental Forest was established in 1925 with the help of Earl Frothingham, the first station director of the Appalachian Forest Experiment Station. Frothingham divided Bent Creek EF into areas devoted to reforestation, the effects of prescribed fire, erosion control, chestnut blight, and other research topics.

Such expansive research required infrastructure. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and other relief programs provided this support. Across the South, the CCC built forest roads, trails, and erosion control structures. CCC workers also helped with the science. On the Palustris Experimental Forest in Louisiana, enrollees helped with nursery studies and planted seedlings. They provided similar field support at the Crossett Experimental Forest in Arkansas.

Today, the Crossett, Palustris, and Bent Creek Experimental Forests are among 19 sites in the SRS Experimental Forest Network. Scientists and forest managers are using data from the Network to answer questions about restoration, hardwood regeneration, pine silviculture, wildlife, and water.

standing around a tree
Mississippi school children see how turpentine was extracted from pine trees. Forest Service photo, probably by R.M. Conarro in the early 1930s.

In 1934, the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory in North Carolina was established to develop remedies to the severe erosion problems in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Coweeta researchers studied watershed management and have continuously measured rainfall, streamflow, and climate since Coweeta was founded.

Water is also the research focus at Alum Creek Experimental Forest in Arkansas, the Santee Experimental Forest in South Carolina, and other locations, including Stoneville, Mississippi.

In the deep bottomland forests of the Mississippi River Valley, southern forest science made another great leap forward. In the 1930s, researchers developed the South’s first systematic, scientific surveys of tree volume, growth, use, and mortality – which would eventually become part of the Forest Inventory and Analysis program. The forest survey covered all forest types from the Carolinas to eastern Texas.

Only a small fraction of the stories and discoveries of the last hundred years has been included here. To commemorate the Centennial, research forester and project leader Don Bragg and colleagues are compiling histories of the Stations’ research programs, places, and people. These narratives will be published alongside a collection of historic photographs, maps, blueprints, and other documents. Some of these are already available in the Forest Service Research Data Archive.

a person standing among small pine tree
Early research focused on all aspects of pine silviculture. Forest Service photo.

Many publications and videos about the contributions of the Southern Research Station and its predecessors are available:

  • The histories of important projects on the Bent Creek, Coweeta, Hitchiti, and Calhoun Experimental Forests.
  • In addition to his many contributions to research on longleaf pine regeneration, emeritus scientist Jim Barnett has documented historic forestry and forest science in the South.  Faces from the past profiles nearly 50 individuals who led forest restoration efforts in the South.
  • When Philip Wakeley retired in 1964, he presented a memoir, later updated and annotated by Barnett, that chronicled the first years of forest research in the South.
  • Barnett also authored a report on the history of direct seeding of southern pines, and an accompanying video from 1964 tells this story.
  • Led by Russell Reynolds, second-growth timber management took hold in Arkansas, on the Crossett Experiment Forest and with the Crossett Lumber Company.
  • Margaret Stoughton Abell, the first woman forester in the Forest Service, joined the staff of the Appalachian Forest Experiment Station in 1930.

These are but a few of the examples of how Southern Research Station science has led to healthier forests over the past century. Researchers continue to develop the tools needed to sustain the South’s diverse forest ecosystems today and for the century to come.

Learn more about the Station’s history through a collection of historic publications.

For more information  or to contribute to the Southern Forest Research Centennial, email Don Bragg at don.c.bragg@usda.gov.

Access the latest publications by SRS scientists.