Forest restoration is something that is talked about a lot these days. But what does restoration really look like on the ground? 2016 marks the halfway point in the project. In the past 4 years, Forest Service managers have been working with a group of partners to improve forest health on over 27,000 acres. One of the key projects the Forest Service has led is the shortleaf pine restoration work at Roses Creek, near Morganton, NC.
Shortleaf pines are a southern yellow pine that grow at lower elevations on the rolling slopes where the foothills meet the Appalachian Mountains. Shortleaf pine forests contain not only shortleaf pines, but a mix of oak species that benefit wildlife as well as other southern yellow pines. The stands are typically open – more like a woodland than a dense forest – and contain a rich understory of grasses and forbs. Historically, shortleaf pine forests were common on the dry, south facing slopes of the Grandfather Ranger District. Today, they are scattered across only a small percentage of the district.
Past records show that this forest type supported a wide variety of plant and animal species. Shortleaf pine forests in the Southern Blue Ridge once supported rare species like red cockaded woodpecker as well game species like bobwhite quail. But, the forests were hit hard on several fronts. First, much of the forest was lost with land clearing – which was common on these rolling slopes in the early 1900s. Next came fire suppression – without frequent fire the fire-loving oaks and pines were overtaken by yellow poplars and maples. The final hit was the southern pine beetle outbreaks in the 1990s which swept through the area, killing many of the remaining shortleaf pines.
The Roses Creek shortleaf pine restoration site provides an opportunity for these pine forests to come back to life. Last year, the Forest Service brought in local loggers to do a restoration harvest. Select yellow pine and oak trees were left in the overstory to provide structure and a seed source. After the harvest, the Grandfather Ranger District fire staff conducted a prescribed fire to prepare the seed bed. Southern pine seeds germinate best where there is little leaf litter, and burning will knock back some of the competing trees and shrubs. The final step is planting shortleaf pine seedlings in between the remaining trees to add to the seed source from the few existing shortleaf pines.
The Roses Creek site is just one example of shortleaf pine restoration under the Grandfather Restoration Project. Managers are working to restore the system so that rare plants and animals will return to the area, and future generations will be able to enjoy the unique and beautiful shortleaf pine forests.