ARSA Update: Longleaf Restoration Beyond Tree Planting
By Brian Pelc, Restoration Project Manager, The Nature Conservancy
Ask a biologist who studies insects, snakes, mammals, even birds, what portion of the longleaf forest they spend most of their time working in and you’re bound to hear “the understory.” While much of our attention is spent on planting trees, the vast majority of the diversity this ecosystem is known for occurs from the knees down; several critical restoration steps are needed to ensure the woods can be home to as many species as possible.
First, the all-important role of fire. Even newly planted longleaf stands should be coming onto the landowner and manager’s radar screens for the first burn. Initial fire is usually recommended as soon as the root collar on the seedlings is 1” or more, and this first entry with fire can be critical in keeping competing hardwoods and offsite pines at bay. Furthermore, any beneficial remnant understory species trying to establish from the seed bank in the newly opened stand will benefit greatly from a burn within the first two to three years. If that first burn can knock back competing trees, then a return of fire every 2-3 years should do most of the stand maintenance until it’s time to thin the pines.
If there isn’t decent groundcover remaining on the site, landowners and managers should consider how to bring that essential layer of the forest back into its restored state. Not only will a multitude of wildlife species benefit from the food and shelter that the understory provides, but on-going management with fire will be safer and easier for decades to come. Contact your local conservation land managers to find out more about understory restoration equipment loans and locally grown seed from your neck of the woods.
Image 1: Restored sandhill habitat at the Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve. Planted longleaf are rocketing out of the established groundcover. In most restoration projects on ABRP seed was brought in from a donor site on the preserve and planted just before seedlings. First burn is targeted at 40 months after planting. Photo by D. Printiss.