Seeing the forest and the trees

July 28th, 2015 by Red Hills

Longleaf Forest stamps_200ppi

published in Tallahassee Democrat July 25, 2015

It’s well-known that Red Hills hunting estates have some of the finest examples of old-growth longleaf pine forests left on the planet. This is a treasure for which we should all be thankful, but these old-growth forests should not be viewed as exhibits in a dusty antiquated museum. They are integral models within a working landscape. Studying and observing old-growth forests of this type — where no trees are ever harvested — allows ecologists to better understand how the forest perpetuates itself under mostly natural conditions.

As beautiful and endlessly fascinating as the old-growth stands are, Red Hills forests from which trees are occasionally selectively harvested are also sources of instruction. You can see some of these forests on the drive between Tallahassee and Thomasville. Many of the plant and animal species, such as the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker that thrive in old-growth conditions, can also do well in these forests because they are managed in a style that mimics nature. Frequent fire is the common essential element for management of all upland pine forests in the Red Hills, including the old-growth forests.

The point is that we can have a productive forest for human needs — timber, clean water and clean air — that is also excellent habitat for the myriad species of plants and animals that live in the forested grassland that is the longleaf pine ecosystem. But first we need to develop an eye and an aesthetic for a healthy forest.

In 1997, while a staff ecologist at Tall Timbers Research Station, I was asked to be a consultant (along with Wilson Baker) for the design of the U.S. Postal Service longleaf pine ecosystem stamp block for the Nature of America series. Our role consisted of supplying information and images to an artist hired by the Postal Service. The fine artist, who lived in Hawaii, would then supply us with sketches of his vision of the archetypal longleaf forest and ask for our comments. We went back and forth like this for five years before the stamps were officially released in a ceremony at Tall Timbers.

A few of the things about the rendition of a longleaf forest that we wanted the artist to get right included representing the species-rich ground cover, giving some of the largest trees flat crowns that indicate great age, and showing patches of young trees to reveal a forest that can regenerate itself. These are a few of the components of a healthy self-sustaining longleaf pine forest, whether it is old-growth or managed with an ecological forestry approach.

Bringing the young trees into the image acknowledges that this beautiful forest will change. Old trees will die and storms will inflict damage. In fact, variation over time must be considered an essential part of any forest and a key component of ecological forest management. For example, after a tornado splintered the old trees of some beautiful longleaf forests on the south side of Thomasville some years ago, sapling longleaf — which have less wind resistance — were relatively unscathed. The future forest was already embedded in the present forest when the catastrophe struck.

You might have heard a recent Radiolab production entitled “Why isn’t the sky blue?” The essence of this piece was that “evidence is mounting that until we have a way to describe something, we may not see it’s there. Ancient languages, for instance, didn’t have a word for blue and scientists believe as a result our ancestors didn’t notice the color even existed.”

In a way we need to find the words — maybe some new ones — to better describe the aesthetic of a healthy forest so we will know it when we see it. As you drive around the Red Hills, don’t let the forests become a “background blur of nameless gray and green.” Look for the grassland with old trees and saplings and think of ecological forestry that supports a wealth of biological diversity and resources that humans can use.

Dr. Todd Engstrom has been studying birds and wildlife habitat for over 40 years. Exploring the Red Hills is a blog celebrating the ecology, culture and history of the Red Hills Region of north Florida and southwest Georgia.

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