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Exchange speaker promotes longleaf pine

ALBANY -- About 35 miles south of Albany, work goes on to manage 29,000 acres of trees that may be taken for granted -- pine trees.

Not just any pine tree, but the longleaf pine occupies the focus at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichauway, said Steve Jack, a conservation ecologist from the center speaking to the Exchange Club of Albany Friday.

"Ours is a holistic approach. It is not meant to maximize the return from timber or the huntable quail," Jack said. "It is meant to preserve and manage the whole ecological system, retaining the forest canopy and the wildlife."

Before the arrival of European settlers in the South, anywhere from 60 million to 90 million acres supported longleaf pine forests. Those forests had a unique look involving grasslands and savannas, beneath canopies of widely spaced longleaf pines.

Jack provided the Exchangites with a sweeping history of man's encroachment on the forests from early subsistence farming to turpentine harvesting to timber cutting to agribusiness and the growth of industry. The results left only 3 to 4 percent of the longleaf forests standing.

It may seem odd, but the fire suppression tactics of "Smokey the Bear" during the 1920s through the 1930s were actually bad for longleaf pine forests. Apparently the northerner Smokey got it wrong about fire, as did the home-grown Dixie Crusaders. Not all fire is bad for all trees.

Jack said that there is a time in the longleaf pines' growth cycle that nearly demands parts of it be burned off for the tree to grow tall. If that part of the tree isn't burned away, it could stay a bush for hundreds of years.

Where nature had natural ignition through lightning, today controlled burns on a two-year rotation are used to encourage longleaf pines' growth. Grown trees are harvested for timber by individual selection, not clear cutting.

"We take a conservative approach. We encourage leaving old trees. They can live to 500 years old," Jack said. "The objective is to maintain and restore the forest type in the uplands. It maintains the plant and animal communities."

More information about the longleaf pine can be found on the center's website jonesctr.org.