When Forests Burn, It’s Good for Wildlife and Local Communities
Southern forests were once covered by the longleaf pine — over 90 million acres of it! Longleaf was the dominant forest type for the coastal plain, and hundreds of plants and animals evolved and thrived within the open, park-like stands that characterize longleaf pine habitat. By the mid-20th Century, that acreage was down to just 3.5 million acres, partially due to a lack of regular fire, which is critical to maintaining the habitat conditions favored by plants and wildlife unique to this ecosystem. But recently, thanks to hard-fought collaborative conservation efforts, the longleaf range has begun to expand again, reaching nearly five million acres.
Unfortunately, the decline in the acreage and the quality of longleaf forests has translated into a similar decline for the plants and animals that depend on healthy longleaf habitat, sending many of these species to the emergency triage room that is the Endangered Species Act. But there is a plan to reverse this troubling trend: fire.
In North Carolina, getting more fire in the longleaf pine ecosystem is at the heart of a new partnership between the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and The Orton Foundation, affiliate of Louis Bacon’s Moore Charitable Foundation. The Orton Foundation is helping to unlock more matching dollars to help private forest landowners use prescribed fire to manage their longleaf pine stands.
Why is getting fire back on the landscape so important? Longleaf pine forests are fire-dependent ecosystems. The trees have evolved to survive low-intensity, frequent burns. These burns kill off competing vegetation and promote the growth of grasses, forbs and other understory plants that are as important as the tree itself for providing wildlife habitat. Regular prescribed burning leaves these majestic, towering sentinels to overshadow a park-like savannah where rare plants and animals, such as the iconic red-cockaded woodpecker, thrive.
And it’s not just birds – other notable flora and fauna such as the Carolina gopher frog, eastern diamondback rattlesnake, fox squirrel, Venus fly trap, and native orchids are closely adapted to a longleaf ecosystem that thrives when treated with prescribed fire on a two to three-year cycle. And these are just a few of the more than 300 longleaf-dependent species whose habitats depend on periodic fire. So oddly enough, the path to saving our Southern forest and wildlife heritage means burning, and burning often.
Since 2012, NFWF has supported a large coalition of longleaf partners serving as the backbone of longleaf restoration efforts across the South. This coalition, made up of conservation non-profits, the forest industry, government agencies, academia and landowners, is collectively working toward the goal of restoring 8 million acres of longleaf pine habitat by 2025 as laid out in the Range-wide Conservation Plan for Longleaf Pine. Eight funders have joined NFWF in support of the coalition, including four federal agencies – the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Department of Defense; three private funders – Southern Company, International Paper and Altria Group; and one philanthropic foundation – the American Forest Foundation. Pooled together, NFWF organizes these dollars into the Longleaf Stewardship Fund, a one-stop competitive grant program that makes it easier for project partners to find the resources they need and to focus their energies in a more effective and prioritized fashion.
The Orton Foundation now joins this elite partnership as the ninth funder, with a focus on intensifying prescribed fire efforts in North Carolina. Prescribed fire, as opposed to a wildfire, is managed for a specific outcome on the ground such as improving wildlife habitat. North Carolina is some of the more productive longleaf territory, and the extra resources for fire work will enable partners there to quickly expand acres treated and reach more landowners.
Building a culture of prescribed burning, both with landowners and the general public, is no easy undertaking. Burns are only conducted when conditions are right, and when they can be managed so they will not escalate into wildfires. And when experienced fire managers from government and the private sector team up, safe and effective burns result in significant conservation work. As anyone who has set foot in a mature longleaf pine stand can attest, the results speak for themselves – it just feels right.
We have a long road still ahead of us, but the community is growing thanks to The Orton Foundation, and NFWF is committed to building more momentum in the years to come. Thank you, Louis Bacon and The Orton Foundation!