Forest and Fire

longleaf pinesOne of the last small stands of the great longleaf pine forest that once covered 90 million acres, dominating the southern landscape from Virginia to Louisiana, survives at the Weymouth-Sandhills Nature Preserve in Moore County, North Carolina.  The forest is part of an amazingly rich and diverse ecosystem, home to 900 species that are found nowhere else.  And its survival depends on fire.

Longleaf pine is an early fire-succession species, one of the first to return in the aftermath of  a large fire.  If  the underbrush in such a forest is not burned regularly, at one-to-three year intervals, scrub oak and other hardwoods  grow up to choke out the new pine seedlings.  The usual explanation for the enormous extent of this forest, before the time of the first Europeans, is that fires occurred regularly over its entire area as a result of lightning strikes.                        longleaf pine map

An alternative explanation, however, is that the lightning was assisted by Native Americans, who burned the brush to provide a habitat for game and to make it easier to hunt that game.  The practice of regular burning was recorded all across the southern half of the continent, in many different types of forests, by the settlers who arrived to put a stop to it.

For the whites, the longleaf pines were a primary source of tar and turpentine, collectively known as naval stores,  North Carolina’s most important export.  Turpentine was extracted by tapping the trees until they died. The dead trees were cut down and burned slowly in kilns, in order to produce the valuable tar, and the cleared land was then converted to agriculture.  Little by little, as the settlers moved south and west down the coastal plain, the vast forest disappeared.

longleaf pine burnOver time, the role of fire in the life of a forest was forgotten, and Smoky the Bear taught us all to regard forest fire as an evil to be conquered.   It is only in our own lifetimes that fire ecologists have come to recognize its importance, and only in a few places, like the Weymouth Sandhills Preserve, that they are using it to regenerate a lost ecosystem.

More information: the best available introduction to the longleaf pine forest is a YouTube video featuring E.O. Wilson, “Secrets of the Longleaf Pine,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6S80ixJRjk.

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