Fire is an essential part of a healthy longleaf pine ecosystem, but intentionally introducing flames to the landscape can be a frightening prospect for landowners. Most do not have the appropriate skill set, the experience or the tools to tackle this vital land management technique.
A new program spearheaded by the Sandhills Area Land Trust is attempting to bridge this gap.
“We want to move landowners from interest to action,” said SALT outreach coordinator Jesse Wimberley. “We are doing good with prescribed burns on public lands but we need to grow this interest in the private landowners community. We are trying to expand the base of people using fire. That is what this is all about.”
To encourage longleaf restoration, SALT secured grant funding from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation to establish the NC Sandhills Prescribed Burn Association. The purpose of this organization is to provide training, equipment, and educational programs that will increase the effectiveness and safety of prescribed burns on private lands.
Rather than an event, fire must be viewed as an ongoing process of land management. With fire, wildlife is better managed, it restores the native ground cover, it prepares the seedbed for the next generation of longleaf pine and can reduce the “fuel load” so the threat of wildfire is diminished. Without fire, the ecosystem ceases to function as a unique habitat.
According to a survey conducted by the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils and the National Association of State Foresters, more than 11 million acres were treated with prescribed fires across the country in 2014. The Southeast accounted for eight million acres of total activity and led the nation in all categories of prescribed fire. Despite these encouraging numbers, the need still far exceeds current output. More prescribed burns must be conducted on privately held lands to meet restoration goals.
“The grant gives us the ability to put prescribed burn on the ground. When we held our first meeting with landowners, it was obvious that what was most needed was training,” said Nancy Talton, executive director of SALT.
The Sandhills Prescribed Burn Association kickoff meeting was held in February with more than 75 private landowners representing 15,000 acres across six counties. Out of that introductory session, a 12-member steering committee was created to provide peer-to-peer support to landowners. Also with assistance from the National Wild Turkey Foundation, a trailer was purchased for the PBA and will be stocked with supplies and materials needed to conduct a prescribed burn.
Last Saturday, the trailer, members of the steering committee and several partnering agencies met with interested private landowners for a hands-on training at Lighterwood Farm in West End.
Wimberley, a fourth generation land manager and farmer, began transitioning the restored 1870 turpentine and tobacco farm from tobacco production to longleaf pines many years ago when he assumed control of the family land. Today the property offers conservation value and straw production with these two different objectives both achieved by using specific burn plans. For income-generating straw production, the burn technique utilized eliminates all competition and diversity since these can negatively impact the value of the straw.
However, the property also is home to biodiverse hotspots known as hillside seeps. To protect and enhance these areas, Wimberley uses a different burn technique that ensures the proliferation of some of the most unique flora and fauna endemic to the Sandhills region.
“We wanted to create an entity to give people the skills and confidence to put fire back on the ground. What you need when you are doing a burn is a lot of eyes out there. The PBA can not only help landowners get the skills they need to set a fire but we can also help provide the equipment they need,” he said.
Landowner David Burns said he set his first trees in the Robbins area in 1958 and has been interested in timber ever since. Currently he owns and manages several hundred acres of mostly forestland in Moore and Scotland counties, along with land in Marlboro, South Carolina.
“Most of my production is in loblolly pines. Improved loblolly, on good ground, will grow faster. If you are in it for economic gain, loblolly is good for pulp wood and timber but I am interested to see if the same improvements have been made in longleaf. I want to learn what I can,” he said. “I’ve been at this a long time and have a lot of history. My goal is to have every acre productive. Land is a good investment. It has a slow return but a solid return.”
George Byers also owns considerable acreage of forested land, with nearly 133 acres of family farm in Hoke County. He attended the training event at Lighterwood Farm to learn more about how to convert previously cleared land to longleaf pine production.
“I want to conserve and protect the soil and land that my father and grandfathers worked. Some of the farm land, I will continue to manage. But my interest is mainly in conservation. I hope to bring some of the wildlife back to my land. The turkey and quail and deer that were here before. I want to help people to understand what is here and what was here 100 years ago. So much land has been turned over to development. We’ve lost a lot of our ecosystem.”
When settlers first arrived in the American southeast, they found over 90 million acres of longleaf pine forest extending from Virginia to Florida and east to Texas. When intact, these ecosystems support over 100 rare species of plants and animals, but less than one percent of these forests exists today. A survey conducted in 1996 by a Florida researcher found that less than 0.01 percent of these remaining longleaf pine forests could be considered old growth.