10 NOV 2011: REPORT
Down a narrow dirt road at the Third Infantry Division’s home base of Fort Stewart, Georgia, Joe Veldman pulls into a sand-hill landscape covered with turkey oak, saw palmetto, and, most crucially, a healthy stand of longleaf pine.
At first glance, this hardscrabble ecosystem on one of the
As it turns out, however, military bases such as
“Longleaf pine habitat usually gets chopped down and paved,” said John Orrock, a conservation biologist at the
Orrock and Veldman are a part of a $1.8 million study, involving some 25 researchers at three locations:
And while it may seem counter-intuitive, military bases have proven to be hospitable places for longleaf pine ecosystems. This ancient, fire-resistant species depends on random fires to thin the understory and rid itself of competitors, creating an unexpected synergy between live-ammunition maneuvers — which often lead to small blazes — and a thriving longleaf pine ecosystem.
“When it comes to longleaf pine management, the military is by far the best,” said John Kush, a forest ecologist at
In the early 19th century, vast expanses of longleaf pine stretched inland from the coasts of the Atlantic and
Today, some 66 percent of longleaf pine forest remains in private hands, primarily in southwest
The Alabama-based Longleaf Alliance — the nation’s oldest longleaf conservation group — is working to educate private owners about both the aesthetic and economic benefits of maintaining a longleaf ecosystem. Longleaf pine is still in high demand as timber, primarily for utility poles, and selective logging can preserve these ecosystems.
Rhett Johnson, a forest ecologist and the president of the Longleaf Alliance, said that restoring longleaf forests on former agricultural land is a major challenge, since plant seeds that once made up the ecosystem’s diverse understory have often disappeared. This is where the scientific work on military bases may be helpful, as Orrock and his colleagues are now studying how best to restore former farmland.
Almost half of
“Our work shows that sites that were in agriculture many years ago still have much less diverse communities,” said Orrock. “The exciting part for us is whether or not these lasting effects of the past can be undone with our current experiments.”
The military base studies also are underscoring that in longleaf pine ecosystems, fires are as welcome as a healthy rain. Longleaf pine seedlings actually need fire to ensure the ecosystem maintains an open canopy, providing the young, shade-intolerant pines with sunlight. Without fire, broadleaf trees like sweetgum and water oak thrive and eventually cast the understory in permanent shade.
Joe Veldman noted the importance of fire as he drove me to research plots scattered around
Later, walking through a stand of longleaf pine, Veldman pointed to a nearby seedling that could be easily mistaken for an oversized clump of grass. Such young seedlings can remain within two feet of the surface for five years or more, then enter a phase where they can quickly spurt by as much as four to five feet per year. But as long as the seedling’s dominant growth bud is below or near the surface, Veldman explains, fires can burn right over it, leaving it unscathed. Mature longleaf pine, which have potential lifespans of 500 years or more, are relatively immune from the ravages of wildfire, since their thick bark offers them protection.
Orrock, Veldman, and their colleagues are testing the assumption that understory diversity is maintained by a longleaf pine ecosystem that thrives on frequent fire. “Within the span of one square meter,” said Orrick, “it’s exciting to see 30 to 40 different plant species in really pristine longleaf pine understories.”
From ground level, it’s clear why the military would like this type of landscape for training. There's enough territory and tree cover for camouflage maneuvers, and during live-fire exercises there is ample room to maneuver tanks and Humvees in a park-like landscape. And if their ordnance happens to start a fire? So much the better.
Depending on drought conditions, as many as 200 wildfires per year are started by ordnance, smoke grenades, and signal or illumination flares. On average, these training-related fires consume no more than 2,000 acres per year, and most are allowed to burn out on their own, except when they present a significant safety danger due to smoke.
In addition to funding studies of longleaf pine restoration, the Department of Defense is readying itself for an era in which its military bases have to account for their carbon footprint. Longleaf pine ecosystems can help the military do that through carbon sequestration. Another five-year, military-funded study — led by Lisa Samuelson, an eco-physiologist at Auburn University — will focus on measuring carbon storage and ecosystem biomass at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Fort Polk, Louisiana; and Fort Benning, Georgia. The project’s ultimate goal is to help the Department of Defense develop a carbon sequestration plan.
Even though aesthetics and endangered wildlife might seem to be the least of the Army’s worries, it’s hard not to be impressed when standing in the midst of such an ancient ecosystem. Near the end of a rutted fire road that disappeared into a longleaf horizon, Veldman and I stood and took it all in. The only sound was the lonely swoosh of wind in the pines. Standing there, it was easy to imagine these pines as they once were, ubiquitous and untouched.