The Orianne Society Land Management Team is based at the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve (OISP) in Telfair County, Georgia, and works with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and many private landowners across the Altamaha and Ocmulgee river corridors, implementing land management practices that benefit longleaf pine forests, Eastern Indigo Snakes, and Gopher Tortoises.
It can be grueling work, often performed under sweltering heat. But the results are worth it. Our land management crew plays an crucial role of habitat restoration.
We sat down with Wayne Taylor, Director of Land Management, for a Q & A on progress being made at the OISP, and why The Orianne Society is taking such great effort — including manpower and the equipment necessary — to restore a healthy fire regimen to the natural communities of the Altamaha and Ocmulgee river corridors.
Wayne, what is “prescribed fire?”
Prescribed fire is a safe way to apply a natural process. It ensures ecosystem health, and reduces wildfire risk.
How is prescribed fire necessary, specific to longleaf pine?
The longleaf pine-dominated natural community is fire dependent. Longleaf pine seeds require mineral soil contact for germination, and fire consumes surface litter to expose mineral soil. Fire also top-kills shrubs and hardwoods reducing the competition for sunlight, allowing it to reach the forest floor. Historically, natural fires maintained suitable conditions that allowed for the dominance and spread of longleaf pines over the southeastern U.S. Since lightning- and man-caused wildfires are suppressed to reduce the risk to people, prescribed fire is applied under specific weather and moisture conditions to achieve forest management objectives.
How many acres has The Orianne Society burned this season (private and public)?
The Orianne Society has led or assisted in burning approximately 4,050 acres since July of 2011; over 1,100 acres were burned this year at the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve, alone. We would normally only burn 1/4 to 1/3 of the preserve annually, but a large forest restoration project necessitated burning over half of the acres considered to be fire-maintained.
How would you describe the condition of the OISP when The Orianne Society took it over?
“Beat-up and decadent” generally describes the overall condition of the natural communities of the Preserve when it was purchased. The land of the Preserve has experienced the gamut of land-uses, including cultivation, grazing, pine-tree farming, and even abandonment. All of the forested areas had suffered at least 30 years of fire suppression.
How would you describe it now, and what are some of the management practices you’ve implemented to get it here?
“Recovering” best describes the parts we have burned the last couple years. We emphasize applying prescribed fire frequently, taking place in the late spring and early summer to mimic the seasonal timing of natural, lightning-caused fires. These are the conditions under which the native flora and fauna of the Preserve have evolved. Late spring and early summer fires stimulate the groundcover plant species to flower and produce viable seed, to regenerate and increase the overall vigor of the fire dependent flora and fauna; it also top-kills shrubs and hardwood trees. Annually, we prepare many miles of firebreaks, using existing trails where possible. In a few locations we have used minimum impact techniques to establish new firebreaks. Last year, we thinned or clear-cut over 500 acres of loblolly and slash pines planted on sites that were historically dominated by longleaf pine.
What more is there needed to do?
Fire management is a perpetual process that is required annually. Over the next 10 years we will be establishing longleaf pine seedlings, collecting and sowing native groundcover seed, and controlling non-native invasive plants. This work will be ongoing until the natural communities have reached a condition where frequently applied late spring and early summer prescribed fires can maintain the fire-climax condition. Additionally, the roads, trails and infrastructure will require periodic maintenance, as will the equipment needed to support these and other operations.