In 2023, The Nature Conservancy successfully acquired a 596-acre tract at Wheeler Mountain in Bibb County, Alabama to protect the land from potential threats of clear-cutting or development. Now in conservation ownership, TNC is working with the U.S. Forest Service to eventually add the parcel to the Talladega National Forest.
The partners are also collaborating on efforts to reintroduce fire to the landscape, a historic disburbance key to the health of the parcel's longleaf pine forest, which covered 90 million acres spanning from Virginia to Texas. In addition to longleaf pine habitat, the Wheeler Tract also includes Gully Creek, a tributary of the Cahaba River, one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the South as well as one of most biodiverse.
CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC
TNC's scientists are inventorying this tract's biological diversity.
Bibb County, Alabama
A longleaf pine forest boasts 80- to 100-year-old trees that harbor the largest known populations of red-cockaded woodpecker in the state.
Keith Tassin, TNC's deputy state director and fire manager, talks us through a visit to the Wheeler Mountain Property.
So we're in the Oakmulgee District of the Talladega National Forest. The tract we're on today is called the Wheeler Mountain Tract, which is just under 600 acres. The Wheeler Mountain Tract, which we're trying to acquire to incorporate into the Oakmulgee District of the Talladega National Forest is a really good example of the type of projects that The Nature Conservancy is capable of doing if we can raise the funds necessary to do that in our Ireland Opportunity Fund.
We estimate, based off of the timber cruise information that we got out here, that the majority of the longleaf pine forest is in the 80- to a 100-year-old range for the older trees. The largest known populations of red-cockaded woodpecker in the state are on the western part of the forest. You can see there's a big block of forest there, and over here it's really scattered. And so we're trying to create big enough blocks that they can reestablish red-cockaded woodpeckers in these areas. It would be our goal to restore fire to this tract. This would've naturally been a much more open pine woodland.
Historically, many of the ecosystems in the U.S. evolved with fire. And then as Indigenous people moved into the landscape, they continued that use of fire and then into the 1900s to mid-1900s, there was free range cattle, so farmers also burned off the land so that the cattle could graze.
And then at some point we started suppressing fire. Historically, red-cockhead woodpeckers occurred throughout the entire range of longleaf pine, which was over 90 million acres from Virginia to East Texas. And with that fire suppression and conversion to loblolly pine plantations development, they have been relegated really to military bases, national forest, and a few areas on private ownership. They require a really open understory and sub canopy. And so, fire suppression obviously closes those areas in and it's undesirable for them to live there anymore. And so a big part of the restoration of that is creating these areas where you have multiple types of habitat.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers are unique in that they actually use live trees for their cavities, whereas a lot of the other woodpeckers use dead snags and trees like that for their cavities. And so red-cockaded woodpeckers require old growth. The longleaf pine gets what's called a Red Hearts Disease, which means the interior of the tree starts getting really soft and it allows the woodpecker once it gets in there to build these cavities. And so it's really critical to have these older trees for them to survive.
The main concept with the Ireland Opportunity Fund is a fund that allows us to purchase land what we call co-op deals, which is we are co-opting with a federal or state agency to acquire land and hold it until they can raise the funds, and then that money revolves back into that fund, which allows us to continue to do those similar kinds of projects.
Quote: Mitch Reid
In addition to representing good examples of historic habitat, a portion of the Wheeler Tract's 80-to-100-year-old montane longleaf pine forests support the largest known populations of red-cockaded woodpecker in the state. Historically, red-cockaded woodpeckers occurred throughout the entire range of longleaf pine. However, they have been relegated to national forests, private lands and military bases as a result of increasing fire suppression and conversion to loblolly pine plantations.
TNC was able to acquire the Wheeler Tract thanks to the Ireland Opportunity Fund, a revolving fund that makes it possible to mobilize resources to protect vulnerable lands more quickly than other organizations, including government agencies. In this case, the Ireland Opportunity Fund made it possible to purchase and hold the Wheeler Tract for the U.S. Forest Service until they can raise the funds to acquire the land to be permanently incorporated into their portfolio. After that time, the money revolves back into the fund to be used for similar projects in the future.
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The Nature Conservancy owns nearly 1,500 preserves covering more than 2.5 million acres across all 50 states. These lands protect wildlife and natural systems, serve as living laboratories for innovative science and connect people to the natural world.