History of Forest Research in the South, 1921-1933

person with tree planting equipment looks at empty field
For 25 years, this photograph was the logo of the Yazoo-Little Tallahatchie Flood Prevention Project, a USDA tree-planting effort in Mississippi.

For 40 years, Philip Wakeley researched southern pines for the USDA Forest Service. Wakeley was one of the first Forest Service R&D employees in the South. He began his career in 1924, at the Southern Forest Experiment Station in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Station was established in 1921, and in the 1990s would merge with the Appalachian Forest Experiment Station to become SRS.

When Wakeley retired in 1964, he shared one final publication: Early forestry research in the South: A personal history. The book was not published until 2010.

“It had almost been lost as a historical look at early research development in the South,” says James Barnett, who revived the text and republished it as a General Technical Report. Barnett worked with Wakeley in the 1960s and spent decades expanding and refining the reforestation methods that Wakeley and other research pioneers developed.

When Wakeley began his career, southern forests were very different. Millions of acres had been clearcut. With no seed trees remaining, natural regeneration would be impossible. Methods for reseeding, replanting, and harvesting timber sustainably would be worked out over the course of decades.

Many people were part of this journey, and Wakeley tells their stories. Some are tragic – for example, Wakeley recalls leaping into Garnier’s Bayou, Florida, to save Al Smith from what appeared to be drowning. However, it was later revealed that Smith had suffered heart failure. “When the doctor finally came, he told us that Al had been dead before he slipped under the surface,” says Wakeley. While recounting this, Wakeley also discusses administrative policies, the personalities and passion of the early researchers, and research locations and programs that no longer exist.

early research study using prescribed fire
An early study on prescribed fire. Visionary forester Henry Hardtner is pictured on the right.

During what Wakeley dubs the Primitive Era (1921 to 1928), research practices were informal. In fact, many of the early methods would be unthinkable today – he describes studies with no replication, no control plots, or other major problems. In a critique of an early survey, Wakeley says, “[It] bore no slightest resemblance to the current Southern Forest Surveys. In some inexplicable revulsion from the scientific accuracy of transit and tape that had distinguished the work on the 200-Acre-Tract at Bogalusa, we used surveyors’ chains instead of metal tapes; the click of chain-links against a scrub oak stem was the theme song of 1925.”

Still, this early research became the foundation for future work. Wakeley describes seedling grading experiments, soil mapping, and many other projects. Thousands of trees were planted on the Coburn’s Creek sites in Louisiana. Each tree was individually tracked for years, and the researchers learned “a tremendous amount about ice-damage, rabbit-damage, Nantucket tip moth, brown-spot needle disease of longleaf pine and that plague of planted loblolly and slash pines, southern fusiform rust.”

Because the seed sources of these planted pines were also recorded, the information became critically important in forest genetics research.

Wakeley calls the period from 1928 to 1933 the Era of Expansion and Recognition. During this time, researchers made huge leaps forward. Three advancements were particularly significant:

a man on ladder inspects a longleaf pine tree
Philip Wakeley observes longleaf pine growth. He was a devoted advocate for longleaf.
  • The Southern Forest Survey provided data on tree mortality and growth, total wood volume by species, and industrial use. It was a massive undertaking. “Compass lines ran 10 miles apart across each State from Tennessee southward to the tip of Florida. At every 660 feet on these lines, plots were established, and a great deal of information was taken,” says Barnett. This survey was first conducted in 1932 and is the precursor to today’s Forest Inventory and Analysis
  • In 1929, tables on volume and yield for second-growth southern pines were published as Miscellaneous Publication 50. For decades, these tables proved extremely useful – they made it possible for foresters to estimate the potential growth and economic benefits of southern forests. “Copies became worn and tattered, but highly prized,” says Barnett.
  • Methods for replanting pine across the South were summarized in Wakeley’s 1935 publication, Planting the Southern Pines. The book was updated in 1954 and outlines the tools and methods that landowners could use to grow and plant pine seedlings. “The book became the basis for nursery production and plantation establishment across the South and is likely the most cited publication of the Southern Forest Experiment Station,” says Barnett.

Wakeley recounts his experiences as if by writing them, he relived them. “It is with events as it is with trees,” he says. “During the Civilian Conservation Corps period, I directed the planting of three quarters of a million trees on the J.K. Johnson Tract near Alexandria, and today, I can identify only one of these trees without a map. At Bogalusa, where I planted a mere 18,000 or 19,000 with my own hands, I can walk straight to and identify a hundred distinctive individuals at will.”

Read the full text of Early forestry research in the South: A personal history.

For more information, email James Barnett at james.barnett@usda.gov.

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