Destroying the Woods to Save Them

This title for this essay was inspired by an infamous phrase quoted by war correspondent Peter Arnett.  Bến Tre City had been heavily bombed and shelled in an effort to drive out the occupying Viet Cong, and an unnamed officer remarked that “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

How is that relevant?  Every year, smoke rises from forests in the coastal plain.  Some folks might be appalled to see forest managers with drip torches, running strings of fire through their woods.  It looks like a case of destroying the woods, but we really are trying to save it.

fire front

In south Georgia we have the remnants of an ecosystem  maintained through natural and man-caused fire (The former by lightning, the latter by Native Americans and later by the settlers who supplanted them).  The longleaf pine, one of our more fire-tolerant trees, thrives in a community which is not only well-adapted to frequent fire, but encourages its spread.  Depending on where the particular habitat is, there may  scores of plant species mixed together: bunch grasses, legumes, wildflowers and other forbs– including many not found anywhere else.   The fauna of these communities are equally rich and varied, and include a number of  grassland birds such as bobwhite quail, meadowlarks, field sparrows, and indigo buntings.  Some threatened and endangered plants and animals are only  found in this ecosystem.

What brings these species together to form a community? In the highly competitive natural world, resilience to fire gives these species an edge over others. Vegetation that can survive periodic burning enjoys the benefits of  abundant sunlight and less competition; highly flammable parts such as dried grass and pine needles actually promote a fire’s spread.  The insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals present here have evolved to exploit the local vegetation’s bounty of seeds, fruit, and accompanying insects; those animals who aren’t fleet enough to escape the flames will utilize burrows or make their own (literally hundreds of species of invertebrates, reptiles, mammals and even birds will find shelter in gopher tortoise burrows).

Now, you’ve probably seen the western fires, with roiling smoke and flames tearing through the treetops.  That’s not what we’re talking about here.  Generally speaking, we see low-intensity fires in frequently-burned longleaf forests – flames rising to three or four feet high.  The grasses, fallen pine needles and other detritus act as fuel to carry fire across the landscape, killing hardwood seedlings and any other plants that aren’t adapted to fire  (and occasionally some that are – survival of the fittest and all that).tall timbers Continue reading “Destroying the Woods to Save Them”

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