Fire and the Longleaf Pines of the Southern US: A Bright Future for a Magical Forest
The longleaf pine forests of the southern US have a unique and subtle beauty. The secret to this beauty is fire.
The “Fire Forests” of the southeast need fire the way rain forests need rain. Most of the plants and animals here have adapted to years of fires that occurred as frequently as every one to five years, through lightning and Native American burning. Without these fires the woods become overgrown, shading out the natural systems and rare plants that therefore can no longer survive.
I have been leading burns in the forests of southeast North Carolina for 13 years. They are some of the most beautiful and difficult forest in which to burn. I do it because the health of our unique forests – an amazing array of carnivorous plants, orchids, grasses, birds, bears, bobcats, and many other animals depends on it. A dramatic fact is that the Venus Flytrap, which now only grows here naturally, would die off forever if we ceased to burn.
Recently The Nature Conservancy (TNC) purchased a new tract in Brunswick County, NC. My first visit to this magical forest was early last year when we were contemplating the purchase. As soon as I entered through the gate I was captivated. We drove through an area christened “Flytrap Gardens” by the previous owners, where old growth flat-top Longleaf pines were sparsely scattered throughout the savanna, reminding me of the Serengeti. The grass was so thick in this savanna that it was difficult to walk through. Venus flytraps and other carnivorous plants were abundant, waiting for some sunlight. This is what a longleaf pine forest should look like — just before a fire.
I continued on to find hundreds of acres of old longleaf pine in this old dune system. This forest has reems of plants just hanging on, waiting to be opened to more sunlight. As well, within this area we found live pine trees excavated by the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. This species is an indicator that there is still a magnificent forest here waiting to be renewed by the ashes.
With the help of Louis Bacon’s Orton Foundation, we are just beginning the restoration process. In winter 2017 we will be leading the first controlled burns that this land has seen in a very long time. First burns are always a difficult task – it will take careful planning to lead safe and effective burns. But this land sits in a larger complex of private, federal and state conservation land that is protecting unique and rare systems. One day soon, this preserve will be one of the gems among North Carolina’s long leaf forests.
As a fire specialist for The Nature Conservancy, Angie Carl, SE Coastal Plain Stewardship & Fire Program Manager, oversees prescribed burns – controlled fires that mimic the natural fires that once shaped the coastal landscape. Louis Bacon and The Moore Charitable Foundation’s affiliate The Orton Foundation applaud Carl and TNC in their dedication to forest health.