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North Carolina

Longleaf Pine: Burn It, and They Will Come

“Burn Baby, Burn.” That is the message that North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Biologist Brady Beck has for people who wonder how to bring longleaf back.

Sandhills Conservation Coordinator Gretchen Coll is surprised that she likes setting fires. Her background in sea turtle research didn’t prepare her for her job in the Sandhills. “The biggest surprise – the biggest takeaway message – is how much the forest has been hurt by not allowing fire to happen on a regular basis,” she says.

“When you see the forest right after burn, it is pretty desolate. It can look a bit like a moonscape,” says Coll. “But, pretty soon it starts to green up. The birds start coming in. You start seeing turkeys.” 

“It’s not the trees, it’s the grasses, the forbs, the herbs – it is the bottom six feet that’s important to wildlife,” says Robert Abernethy, president of the Longleaf Alliance. “If you burn, you’ll have turkeys. If you don’t, then you won’t.”

Animals in the longleaf system are adapted to regular burn cycles. Abernethy says even the wild turkey’s coloring is an adaptation. “In the spring, turkeys are black. I think they evolved in the fire-adapted system – black in spring to match blackened forest.”

When Burn Boss Mike Norris came to the Sandhills in 2003, the Conservancy had one four-member fire crew, burning for five months across the Sandhills and coastal plain. In 2014, the Conservancy has a seven-member crew in the Sandhills burning for six months. His counterpart in the coastal plain Angie Carl has two four-member fire crews – one burning from January through March, the other from May to August.  

Norris has worked extensively at the Conservancy’s Calloway Forest Preserve. “When I came to Calloway in 2003, we had four clusters of red-cockaded woodpeckers,” he says. “Now we have seven. We hope for more in the future.”

If people are familiar with longleaf, they probably expect the forest to look like it does in the Sandhills – longleaf growing on gentle sandy hills. But, Angie Carl doesn’t work in that kind of forest. She works in the area around Wilmington. “It is not just longleaf pine savanna. We have wet savannas, dry savannas, pocosin, hardwood drains and open water swamps,” she explains. “We’ve got old dunes where it was once oceanfront property. We’ve got wet, mucky stuff.”

And, there’s the peat soil. In some places, it is 12 foot deep. Peat has long been used to heat homes, which means it burns well. That poses a problem for Carl. Her burns are complicated affairs. She wants to restore the longleaf, but she has to avoid destructive peat fire. She has been successful.

Controlled burns are also known as prescribed fire. Each fire has a prescription – a plan that details the number of acres to be burned and the ecological goal. “The greatest stress relief is knowing that the fire is completely out – when I can write in our prescription that it is completely out,” says Carl.

Learn more about longleaf pine forests.

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