You may have noticed the smoke in the air from time to time as tree farmers conduct prescribed burns.
Fire has been a forest-management tool since pre-Columbian time, when it was used by the Native Americans to manage the longleaf pine ecosystem in which they lived. The native pine for this area is the longleaf. It once covered some 90 million acres of the Southeast.
The longleaf pine ecosystem was the forest that greeted European colonists in southeastern North America. Its original range was in a broad arc from southeastern Virginia, eastern North Carolina, most of South Carolina and Georgia, half of Alabama, southern Mississippi, portions of southern Louisiana and eastern Texas and the length of Florida to Lake Okeechobee.
The longleaf pine seed has to go through a fire treatment before it will sprout. Frequent fires reduce competition for soil resources by keeping brush and vines down. It creates a forest floor that supports turkey, quail, gopher tortoise and a wide array of other animals, both game and non-game.
Longleaf pine was the predominant timber tree and made Darien a major port worldwide for the timber industry and the Bank of Darien the strongest bank east of the Mississippi and south of Philadelphia during lumbering’s heyday.
After the longleaf was logged out, the lumber economy collapsed. Now, there is a broad effort across the Southeast to bring back the longleaf. One of the most visible and successful proponents for longleaf pine has been the National Wild Turkey Federation.
One of the best longleaf-pine restoration programs anywhere is at Fort Stewart. Longleaf was a natural choice for an Army post in the Southeast, not because it is a better forest tree (which it is), but because it integrates so well into the post’s mission. Live fire training, especially tracer rounds, do an excellent job of igniting any accumulated fuel on the forest floor, which can disrupt the training as soldiers bug out to save equipment while firefighters rush in to extinguish the blaze.
Frequent burns promote longleaf growth, which results in more revenue when the trees are sold. Frequent burns also keep forest floor fuel from disrupting training, which supports the mission.
Burns are best performed during late winter when weather is cooler. For most landowners this is adequate, but for Fort Stewart there are too many thousands of acres of woodland to all be burned in that short span of time.
Also, the mission does not fit the needs of the forest, the forest has to fit the needs of the mission. So Fort Stewart forest managers have to burn forest floor fuel at times of the year when they can and not necessarily when they would prefer.
During the winter, we have the benefit of winds that push smoke into less populated areas. In April and May, the winds often shift and push smoke over the densely populated coast, and we get to smell it if a burn is in progress. Wind direction is just one of several factors that go into making a decision on when to burn a particular forest block.
Fort Stewart adds to that list ensuring that burns are completed sufficiently in advance to present the training environment needed, and that the burn in this block does not interfere with training in another nearby block. It gets really complicated really quickly.
So over the next couple of months you may smell some wood smoke that does not come from a neighbor’s barbecue. Please know that the smoke you smell is helping restore a revered native tree species, an ecosystem of turkey, quail, deer, gopher tortoise, pileated woodpecker and other noble creatures, and the production of a large concentration of American heroes.
Gardner lives in Keller and is the UGA extension agent in Glynn County, serving South Bryan.