A new day is dawning (literally) in Arcadia. After almost 30 years of waiting and 20 years of thinning and annual controlled burns, I recently had my eight-acre loblolly pine forest behind the house logged from thousands of trees to around 200. But WHY (says you, my mother, my wife, and others in disbelief and disdain)???!!! If you have been following along on Facebook, my blog, my lectures, my tours, or YouTube over the years, you know that for the first ten years, my plan was to grow a crop of timber to help restore my grandparents’ old farmhouse where my wife and I live. But the house restoration came and went as eight acres of loblolly pine was not nearly enough: 1. For any logger to take the time to come harvest and 2. Income to restore more than a room, much less a whole house.
After the realization set in that I was not going to be a wealthy timber baron, I turned my attention to the three B’s—birds, bees, and butterflies. Since it looked like I would never have a logger show up, I started the process of turning my pine plantation into a pine savanna. Unfortunately, despite decades of back-breaking labor, it was going to take more than my lifetime to hand thin 8,000 overly crowded trees down to eighty which is what I was aiming for to create a functioning and aesthetically pleasing pine savanna.
What is a pine savanna you ask? Savannas are grasslands dotted with trees. Pine savanna used to be the dominant ecosystem in the upland South before logging and fire suppression. Today most East Texas pine forests are densely crowded and shaded with either very little herbaceous understory vegetation or thickets of yaupon holly, cherry laurel, beautyberry, Chinese privet, smilax, etc. Sadly, when there is not enough sunlight shining on the forest floor, no native grasses or wildflowers can grow. No wildflowers mean no butterflies and bees, both of which face dwindling overall population numbers across the country and across the world.
Basically, pine savannas are a cross between a prairie and a forest. There are several keys to recreating a successful savanna. First is thinning the forest until there is more sunlight on the ground than shade. All gardeners know that there are many more annuals and perennials that grow in the sun than in the shade. The few remaining pristine pine savannas in the southeastern United States are well known for their herbaceous diversity, surpassing almost all other ecosystems in the different kinds of flowering plants growing beneath the widely scattered trees. Many different plants mean many different insects and many different insects mean many different birds, lizards, spiders, frogs, etc.
Due to habit loss, grassland bird populations are in steep decline in the U.S. Northern bobwhite quail have decreased by a staggering 85% and eastern meadowlarks by 75% since the 1970s. Overall bird populations have declined by one-third during that same period. This includes such showy grassland birds as blue grosbeaks, indigo buntings, and painting buntings as well as the multitude of less showy sparrows and such. Folks, we have gone far past the canary in the coal mine. Our entire ark is suffocating.
Pine savannas were special in providing unique habitat for species that specifically required open-forest conditions including American kestrels, Bachman’s sparrows, brown-headed nuthatches, Henslow’s sparrows, pine warblers, and endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. In other parts of the South, they provided homes for endemic ground-dwelling critters like gopher tortoises, indigo snakes, Louisiana pine snakes, and pocket gophers.
There is no denying the ecological benefits that they provide and there is no denying that humans have been drawn to savannas as far back as our African ancestors’ beginnings. But just ask Mrs. G and she will tell you that currently mine is far from aesthetically pleasing and looks more like an environmental disaster. I’ll willingly own up to that as all beautiful landscapes and gardens generally started as either a construction site or a plowed plot.
The first order of business is either waiting for the dozer to arrive to shear off the stumps and pile and burn the slash or tackling the piling and burning myself when the current burn ban is lifted. After the limbs are all burned, I will need to go over it with a broadleaf herbicide to kill all the woody vegetation that exists including more than a healthy stand of aggressive pepper vine, trumpet creeper, and Virginia creeper. I will leave any native grasses which currently includes Canadian wild rye, purple-top tridens, inland sea oats, and a bit of little bluestem, broomsedge bluestem, and split-beard bluestem. Along with pine needles, native grasses provide the fine fuels to help carry future controlled burns. Prescribed fire is essential in maintaining a healthy, sunny savanna while keeping the herbaceous understory free of encroaching woody plants and the mid-story completely open. If I do not get (and keep) the assorted trees, shrubs, and vines under control, they will choke out the young longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) that I plan to plant there as they are very shade and competition intolerant. I have 16,000 longleaf pine seedlings which will be divided between this site, another six-acre site that I had clearcut, and a five-acre tall grass prairie recreation project that I planted a decade ago that is immediately adjacent to my 20-acres of ten-year-old longleaf pine.
After the longleaf pine seedlings are planted, I will seed native grasses and wildflowers and continue to burn indefinitely. I recently placed orders with both Native American Seed and Roundstone Seed and will seek advice and help from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). I’ve already received help from the Texas Longleaf Team and the Texas A&M Forest Service.
There are several reasons I am transitioning from loblolly to longleaf pine. First, the longleaf ecosystem was once common in East Texas and the southeastern U.S. but is now rare. It needs loads of help and many folks to help it get back on its feet. Loblolly pine is generic and omnipresent as our dominant timber tree across the South. Longleaf pine is also more drought tolerant, insect tolerant, wind tolerant, fire tolerant, and longer lived than loblolly pine which historically occurred in more moist areas near streams and moisture.
Any landowner, homeowner, cemetery manager, or golf course superintendent in East Texas can create similar pine savanna conditions by maintaining well-spaced mature loblolly, longleaf, or shortleaf pines with no mid-story trees and plenty of flowering perennials and ornamental grasses in beds and borders. It’s what East Texas looked like for thousands of years and hopefully (at least on my property) will for thousands of years to come.