As I sat on the porch of the bunkhouse watching a logging crew selectively thin a patch of thick pine plantation on my last day at the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve (OISP) six years ago, I hopefully thought to myself how nice it would be to come back long into the future and see how much the property had changed. At the time I didn’t know when, or if, I would ever return to the preserve, but after joining Orianne as the Turtle Conservation Coordinator for the Great Northern Forest Initiative a few months back I started to think those odds were pretty good, and at the end of October the opportunity finally arose. While six years isn’t much time in the grand scheme of things, I was very excited to see how far the property had come over that period.

Thinning a pine plantation helped restore ecosystem structure and allowed plant life to return to the ground.

When I finished working for The Orianne Society back in early 2012 I knew the preserve like the back of my hand. The Orianne Society was entering its third year actively restoring Indigo Snake and Gopher Tortoise habitat on the preserve, but the restoration work was very much in the early stages. Thick patches of pine plantation and huge swaths of fire-suppressed land full of briars and brambles still made up a large portion of the acreage. Unlike other staff members who stayed with the organization since those early days and saw the gradual change of the preserve over time, I now find myself in the unique situation of having been very familiar with the preserve early on and then revisiting it more than half a decade later. In much the same way the growth of a child is more apparent to a family friend who visits once a year, the changes to the preserve over the duration of my absence were quite dramatic to me during my recent return. To put those changes into context, I would first like to briefly walk you through my understanding of why there was a need for habitat restoration in the first place and what the restoration process looks like.

Indigo Snakes, the species for which The Orianne Society was first founded to conserve, utilize a wide variety of habitat types in the summer, but in the winter depend on Gopher Tortoise burrows to survive. In fact, hundreds of wildlife species use tortoise burrows for one reason or another and dozens absolutely depend on them. The Gopher Tortoise, however, has very specific habitat requirements and hasn’t coped well with the changes humans made to the landscape. Consequently, tortoise populations have declined dramatically over the past century and were wiped out in many locations. 

Thinned pine plantation.

The Longleaf Pine ecosystems the tortoises are best adapted to naturally have a very open canopy, low tree density, and the understory is dominated by Wiregrass with a high diversity of nutritious wildflowers important to the tortoise diet. These ecosystems depend on fires every few years or so to keep the understory open and maintain biodiversity, but as a result of fire suppression, the understory becomes an impenetrable mess of shrubs and briars that blocks light from reaching the forest floor and crowds out herbaceous cover. This problem is made drastically worse in places where low-density Longleaf Pine forests were intentionally replaced with dense plantations of faster-growing tree species. Such plantations typically have an understory made up entirely of pine needles and briars and are incompatible with Gopher Tortoise survival. As a keystone species that creates habitat features critical to the survival of other animals, the decline of the Gopher Tortoise precipitated the decline of many other species in the southeast, including the Indigo Snake.

To restore a functional tortoise habitat, Orianne’s land management team started by thinning pine plantations to a natural tree density and then returned fire to the ecosystem, burning the land in patches on a rotating two to three year basis. With the understory opened and fire returned, natural herbaceous cover gradually returned as well, though some important species, such as Wiregrass, needed to be planted manually. Restoring mature Longleaf Pine to places that had been stocked with other trees takes a very long time, but by thinning those plantations to a tree density similar to what would be found in an undisturbed Longleaf Pine forest, the structure of the natural ecosystem can be partially restored very quickly. As a fire-adapted species, Longleaf Pine seedlings that colonize the understory beneath the old plantation trees outcompete and replace the other species in the canopy through attrition once a fire regime is restored. When I conducted property-wide tortoise and snake surveys six years ago, I spent a lot of time walking through recently-thinned pine plantations. While I knew the thinning was an intermediate step to a much larger and comprehensive restoration plan, many of those spots looked like disaster zones. Most of the trees were gone, there were stumps and debris everywhere, and the ground cover was almost completely void of plant life.

After six years.

Such was not the case during my return this fall. Most remaining pine plantations from the early days were gone and sites that looked like disaster zones six years ago are now dominated by native grass and wildflower cover. Wiregrass is restored to many sites and, as expected, chest-high Longleaf Pines now stand beneath the canopies of old plantation trees, waiting to replace them over time. Walking and driving around the preserve during my visit was disorienting at times, but I had a lot of fun exploring the property I was once so familiar with and seeing drastic changes and habitat improvements. Longleaf Pine ecosystem restoration is not something that can be achieved in just six years, though, and because roads now block the natural spread of fire, the property will need to be actively managed through prescribed burns in perpetuity to maintain recent gains in biodiversity. The OISP is about 3,000 acres in size, but Orianne’s land management team is working with local landowners, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, and other partners to manage and restore close to 50,000 acres of Longleaf Pine/Wiregrass ecosystems throughout the region. The team is doing a phenomenal job restoring the habitat Gopher Tortoises need to survive and, in doing so, is facilitating the return and survival of many other species, including the Indigo Snake. Every year the preserve looks less like a restoration project and more like pristine habitat, and as the Orianne Society now enters its tenth anniversary I can only image what OISP will look like at year 20. While I wish I could visit the property more often, working in Vermont will afford me the luxury of only seeing the preserve every now and then, so hopefully upcoming advances in its restoration will be as apparent to me then as they were during my recent return.

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