Landowners are working hard in the hills and mountains of Talbot, Upson and Meriwether counties to restore something rare – montane longleaf pine ecosystems.
At the heart of the effort is Sprewell Bluff Wildlife Management Area, one of the last strongholds of old-growth montane longleaf. Some longleaf on this middle Georgia WMA are more than 400 years old, and surveys have documented five natural communities rated globally rare, two of them new to science.
Working cooperatively, some area landowners are reintroducing fire and bringing back longleaf to these rugged mountains. Regular fire is something these trees need.
Montane, or mountain, longleaf is an extremely rare type of longleaf pine forest and a high-priority habitat in Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy for conserving wildlife and natural habitats statewide. The montane stands at Sprewell Bluff, just west of Thomaston on Pine Mountain, include oak woodland and glade habitats, a unique mix rich in rare plants and animals such as turkeybeard, a rare lily that blooms with 4- to 5-foot-tall flowers after a fire; Carolina larkspur, a beautiful blue spring wildflower; eastern coral snake, the only population north of the Fall Line; and, northern bobwhites and other declining species.
The Sprewell Bluff area is known for its rare natural communities. According to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, surveys in 2012 documented new communities considered globally rare, including hog plum glades, which are unusual grasslands found along rocky ridgetops that often harbor rare plants, and longleaf pine heath bluffs, open-canopied forests found on steep cliffsides that have a rich understory of mountain laurel, rhododendron, blueberries and other heath species.
Adjacent to the WMA, several landowners are also working to restore montane longleaf forests. Included are Plum Creek, Campbell Global and CatchMark Timber Trust, three timber companies that value conserving rare natural communities and have policies protecting rare and endangered forests.
Plum Creek senior wildlife biologist Kyla Cheynet said the company’s working forestlands are certified under the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, or SFI, “which recognizes and protects unique community types in the framework of a working forest.”
“Plum Creek takes the SFI commitment seriously,” Cheynet said. “Our ownership on Pine Mountain, adjacent to old-growth montane longleaf stands, provides a unique opportunity for us to actively restore a historic plant community while still producing valuable wood products.”
Nathan Klaus, a senior wildlife biologist who helps manage Sprewell Bluff with DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section, considers the WMA a great example of the agency engaging neighboring property owners for conservation.
“It’s usually a lot easier to get our job done on our side of the property line and leave it at that,” Klaus said. “The area around Sprewell Bluff is different, however.
“Steep bluffs, heavy fuel loads and rocky terrain make controlling a prescribed fire particularly challenging in this remote country. As a result, it’s often easier to talk to your neighbor and see if they’d like to burn as well, rather than try to put in a firebreak down the side of a mountain.”
Some neighbors at Sprewell Bluff are going beyond just letting the DNR use their roads for firebreaks. Plum Creek replanted longleaf instead of loblolly pine on about 175 acres of loblolly harvested recently on Pine Mountain, a big step toward restoring the native longleaf ecosystem. The company collaborated with the DNR on prepping the planting site in ways to conserve wildlife habitat and rare plants.
Campbell Global is also taking steps toward conserving Pine Mountain, identifying several rare communities on its holdings and making plans to protect the sites when nearby timber is harvested.
Likewise, CatchMark is working with the DNR to replant strategically important areas in longleaf.
Gov. Nathan Deal recognized Plum Creek and CatchMark Timber Trust, along with Georgia Power, in February as 2013 partners in DNR’s Forestry for Wildlife Partnership. This voluntary program promotes sustainable forest and wildlife conservation in corporate forestry practices.
Klaus believes “there is every possibility” that montane longleaf pine ecosystems can be conserved while managing timber.
“It requires some extra effort,” he said. “These systems need regular fire, herbicide use needs to be dialed back and the old trees need to be protected, but these landowners are doing these things and more. It’s a win all around, especially for these rare forests and the wildlife that calls them home.”
MORE ON THE NET
- Georgia State Wildlife Action Plan: www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/wildlife-action-plan
- “Where habitats overlap: restoring montane longleaf,” www.georgiawildlife.com/node/2336
- Forestry for Wildlife Partnership: www.georgiawildlife.com/FWP
- Nongame Conservation Section report: www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/AnnualReport
- Help conserve Georgia wildlife: www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/support