10 Nov 2011: Report

Military Bases Provide Unlikely
Refuge for South’s Longleaf Pine

The expanses of longleaf pine forest that once covered the southeastern United States have been whittled away to just 3 percent of their original range. But as scientists are discovering, this threatened forest ecosystem has found a sanctuary in an unexpected place — U.S. military installations.

by bruce dorminey

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 U.S. Army’s largest installations appears to have seen better days. But Veldman, a plant ecologist at the University of Wisconsin, politely demurs. “If every place in the Southeast were like this, we wouldn’t be doing any research,” he said. “This area is in good shape.”

From Virginia to Texas, the longleaf pine has seen its historical habitat reduced to a mere 3 percent of its original 92 million-acre range. Centuries of logging and farming have exacted a heavy toll on these ecosystems, and in recent decades the Southeast’s economic boom has led to large tracts of longleaf pine being razed for housing, malls, and office parks.

As it turns out, however, military bases such as Fort Stewart have become a key refuge for longleaf pine. And now the U.S. Department of Defense is funding several independent, long-term studies on how to restore some of
‘That the military keeps large chunks of intact land is a godsend for these ecosystems.’
the pine’s ecosystems — one of the most biodiverse environments north of the tropics — to their former glory. Data gleaned from these studies will help the broader longleaf research community conduct longleaf restoration on government and private land across the Southeast; conservationists have set a 15-year goal of restoring the longleaf pine from its current 3.4 million acres to 8 million acres, or levels approaching 9 percent of its historical range.

“Longleaf pine habitat usually gets chopped down and paved,” said John Orrock, a conservation biologist at the University of Wisconsin and the Fort Stewart understory study’s onsite project leader. “That the military actually keeps large chunks of intact land is a godsend because the danger for these ecosystems is that they get developed into something like Walmart.”

Orrock and Veldman are a part of a $1.8 million study, involving some 25 researchers at three locations: Fort Stewart; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and South Carolina’s Savannah River nuclear site. The study’s main goal is to understand how best to restore the longleaf’s diverse understory.

Pineleaf ecosystem
Bruce Dorminey
Plant ecologist Joe Veldman in a longleaf pine ecosystem in Fort Stewart, Georgia
For its part, the military has found longleaf pine habitat ideal for troop maneuvers. “The openness of the longleaf pine and the thin stands provides visibility and maneuverability that is very consistent with what a mechanized force like the Third Infantry division likes to fight in,” said Tim Beaty, a U.S. Army wildlife biologist.

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 Auburn University.

In the early 19th century, vast expanses of longleaf pine stretched inland from the coasts of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico for hundreds of miles, creating a sense of unrelenting monotony. Travelers in Georgia reported a feeling of dread and loneliness upon entering seemingly endless stretches of this forest, where row upon row of tall, straight longleaf pines towered over an understory rife with astors, morning glories, rosemary, huckleberries, wax myrtle, winged sumac, and wiregrass. Deer, feral pigs, rattlesnakes, wild turkey, and bobwhite quail were found in abundance.

Today, some 66 percent of longleaf pine forest remains in private hands, primarily in southwest Georgia, the Florida panhandle, and south Alabama. Much of this land is being logged or farmed, although today a younger generation of owners is only too willing to sell their inheritance to developers.

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,
Agriculture can spoil longleaf habitat for up to a century after cultivation.
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 Fort Stewart’s 279,270 acres lie in longleaf pine ecosystems; but before it became a military base some 70 years ago much of its acreage was either under cultivation or grazed. Orrock and his team have established 36 experimental sites at Fort Stewart alone and are placing an emphasis on how to restore the diverse understory found in pristine longleaf pine ecosystems. The team’s preliminary results indicate that agriculture can spoil longleaf habitat for decades — even a century — after cultivation. Restoration of former farmland, often now covered in loblolly pines, would likely require clear-cutting and starting from scratch.

“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 Fort Stewart. We headed along a two-lane blacktop that threads its way through thousands of acres of mixed woodland and Army live-fire ranges. Veldman stopped at an area known as sector E-22, not far from a Cold War-era mock enemy interrogation camp. Much of E-22 is an area of formerly cultivated farms, and the things growing there now — loblolly, jasmine, and wild vines of the muscadine grape — typically colonize old fields.

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
In longleaf pine ecosystems, fires are as welcome as a healthy rain.
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.


What’s Killing the Great
Forests of the American West?

What’s Killing the Great Forests of the American West?
Across western North America, huge tracts of forest are dying off at an extraordinary rate, mostly because of outbreaks of insects. Scientists are now seeing such forest die-offs around the world and are linking them to changes in climate, science journalist Jim Robbins reports.
The military is also charged with helping retain and restore threatened species on military bases. At Fort Stewart, these include the red-cockaded woodpecker and the gopher tortoise, which relies on the uncluttered understory of longleaf ecosystems to move through the landscape.

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.

POSTED ON 10 Nov 2011 IN Biodiversity Forests Oceans Policy & Politics Water North America North America 


The statement, 'the military has found longleaf pine habitat ideal for troop maneuvers ... "The openness of the longleaf pine and the thin stands provides visibility and maneuverability that is very consistent with what a mechanized force like the Third Infantry division likes to fight in,” said Tim Beaty, a U.S. Army wildlife biologist.' makes me wonder when such ideal conditions for mech ops would be available. In the "real world" are such ideal areas proper training fields for future combat? Or just wishful thinking for a mech infantry disneyland?

Posted by pete saussy on 10 Nov 2011

Where is H. H. Chapman when we need him?

Check his work on longleaf pine in the 1930's and 40's.

Posted by Francis H. Clifton, MF. "48 on 10 Nov 2011

Yes, it is good to see that H H Chapman's observations are still valid.

Posted by Lester Bradford on 10 Nov 2011

There's so much potential for good within the military establishment that one almost feels it's a microcosm of the larger society--the constant battle to promote its better angels comes to mind.

Posted by TRB on 19 Nov 2011

TRB, love that, "promote its better angels". I think much of the good the military does isn't promoted. I lived on Camp Pendleton when I was a teenager in the 80s and remember being told it was a wildlife refuge. Whether that was true or not while I lived there I saw a mountain lion just across the street from my house and many coyotes and coyote puppies. If you found a rattlesnake you didn't kill it, you called to have it removed. And if you had small animals you made sure they were inside at night so the coyotes wouldn't get them.

Posted by J. Bernier on 24 Nov 2011

I enjoyed the article. It is very true about what the military is doing for the longleaf ecosystem. I am a forest technician at Ft. Rucker, Al. We work very hard to preserve, maintain, and restore the longleaf habitat. We took a core sample of one the flatten topped longleaf that was over 130 years old. It was very cool. Thanks, Troy Dunn.

Posted by Troy Dunn on 09 Feb 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
bruce dormineyABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bruce Dorminey is a science journalist and author of the book Distant Wanderers: The Search for Planets Beyond the Solar System. A former Hong Kong bureau chief for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine and a former Paris-based technology correspondent for the Financial Times, he has written about everything from potato blight to dark energy. He is a frequent contributor to Astronomy magazine and has written about climate change and the environment for The Daily Climate, Climate Central.org and Miller-McCune.com.



Electric Power Rights of Way:
A New Frontier for Conservation

Often mowed and doused with herbicides, power transmission lines have long been a bane for environmentalists. But that’s changing, as some utilities are starting to manage these areas as potentially valuable corridors for threatened wildlife.

The Case Against a Legal Ivory Trade: It Will Lead to More Killing of Elephants
Proponents of easing the global ban on ivory are ignoring the fact that it was a legal market for ivory that pushed elephants toward extinction only a few decades ago. What’s needed now is not a legal ivory market, but better regulation and enforcement of the existing ban.

Ivory Trade Debate: Should the
International Ban on Ivory Be Lifted?

Although most conservationists oppose it, a proposal to allow a partial lifting of the ban on ivory trading would benefit Africa’s elephants. With proper controls and enforcement, a legal trade would choke off demand for illicit ivory and discourage the poaching now decimating the continent's elephant populations.

True Altruism: Can Humans
Change To Save Other Species?

A grim new census of the world’s dwindling wildlife populations should force us to confront a troubling question: Are humans capable of acting in ways that help other species at a cost to themselves?

Cashes Ledge: New England's Underwater Laboratory
A little over 70 miles off the coast of New England, an unusual undersea mountain range, known as Cashes Ledge, rises from the seabed. The area teems with kelp forests, sea sponges, and a wide variety of fish and mollusks — much of it captured by ocean photographer Brian Skerry during dives made earlier this year


MORE IN Reports

Drive to Mine the Deep Sea
Raises Concerns Over Impacts

by mike ives
Armed with new high-tech equipment, mining companies are targeting vast areas of the deep ocean for mineral extraction. But with few regulations in place, critics fear such development could threaten seabed ecosystems that scientists say are only now being fully understood.

Electric Power Rights of Way:
A New Frontier for Conservation

by richard conniff
Often mowed and doused with herbicides, power transmission lines have long been a bane for environmentalists. But that’s changing, as some utilities are starting to manage these areas as potentially valuable corridors for threatened wildlife.

With the Boom in Oil and Gas,
Pipelines Proliferate in the U.S.

by peter moskowitz
The rise of U.S. oil and gas production has spurred a dramatic expansion of the nation's pipeline infrastructure. As the lines reach into new communities and affect more property owners, concerns over the environmental impacts are growing.

How Norway and Russia Made
A Cod Fishery Live and Thrive

by john waldman
The prime cod fishing grounds of North America have been depleted or wiped out by overfishing and poor management. But in Arctic waters, Norway and Russia are working cooperatively to sustain a highly productive — and profitable — cod fishery.

A New Frontier for Fracking:
Drilling Near the Arctic Circle

by ed struzik
Hydraulic fracturing is about to move into the Canadian Arctic, with companies exploring the region's rich shale oil deposits. But many indigenous people and conservationists have serious concerns about the impact of fracking in more fragile northern environments.

Africa’s Vultures Threatened
By An Assault on All Fronts

by madeline bodin
Vultures are being killed on an unprecedented scale across Africa, with the latest slaughter perpetrated by elephant poachers who poison the scavenging birds so they won’t give away the location of their activities.

As Small Hydropower Expands,
So Does Caution on Its Impacts

by dave levitan
Small hydropower projects have the potential to bring electricity to millions of people now living off the grid. But experts warn that planners must carefully consider the cumulative effects of constructing too many small dams in a single watershed.

Why Restoring Wetlands
Is More Critical Than Ever

by bruce stutz
Along the Delaware River estuary, efforts are underway to restore wetlands lost due to centuries of human activity. With sea levels rising, coastal communities there and and elsewhere in the U.S. and Europe are realizing the value of wetlands as important buffers against flooding and tidal surges.

Primate Rights vs Research:
Battle in Colombian Rainforest

by chris kraul
A Colombian conservationist has been locked in a contentious legal fight against a leading researcher who uses wild monkeys in his search for a malaria vaccine. A recent court decision that banned the practice is seen as a victory in efforts to restrict the use of monkeys in medical research.

Scientists Look for Causes of
Baffling Die-Off of Sea Stars

by eric wagner
Sea stars on both coasts of North America are dying en masse from a disease that kills them in a matter of days. Researchers are looking at various pathogens that may be behind what is known as sea star wasting syndrome, but they suspect that a key contributing factor is warming ocean waters.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


Twitter: YaleE360
e360 on Facebook
Donate to e360
View mobile site
Share e360
Subscribe to our newsletter
Subscribe to our feed:


About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America


Photographer Peter Essick documents the swift changes wrought by global warming in Antarctica, Greenland, and other far-flung places.
View the gallery.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

Warriors of Qiugang
The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video that chronicles the story of a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant, was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Watch the video.

header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado River Video
In a Yale Environment 360 video, photographer Pete McBride documents how increasing water demands have transformed the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the arid Southwest. Watch the video.