Shared by USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service:
Sand Pine in my Longleaf – A restoration problem
By Arlo H. Kane, Wildlife Biologist
Arlo Kane is the northwest region conservation planning coordinator for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). He has been working with longleaf restoration for about 20 years now. Arlo says longleaf pine restoration is important to the FWC because the longleaf pine ecosystem is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world and one of the most endangered. Restoration of this habitat will benefit a large number of threatened and endangered species of wildlife.
Gainesville, Fla., Aug. 3, 2015 – Washington County landowners Buz and Gail Harris own 535 acres in the sandhills. Nearly 30 years ago the land was planted in Choctawhatchee sand pine. About six years ago they cut the sand pine and decided to restore the property to the longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystem that was historically found in this area. Four years after planting the longleaf, Buz noticed that the sand pine had begun coming back from seed that was left after the cut. In fact the sand pine trees were growing so fast they were starting to crowd out the longleaf in some areas. The sand pines were large enough and the fuel load low enough that prescribed burning was not going to solve the problem. In fact, it is rare in the sandhills that fire can be used to control sand pine regeneration.
A lot of landowners in the sandhills of Northwest Florida are facing this same problem after cutting commercial sand pine. Within a few years they find they often have more sand pine than longleaf. One of the major problems is that having been timbered with sand pine for 20-30 years, wiregrass, the primary fine fuel for conducting prescribed burns, has been highly suppressed. Other grasses and forbs are also missing, which means there is very little fuel to conduct a good burn. It may be 10 years or more before some of these sites have a continuous fuel source to be able to carry a good hot fire. By then the sand pines are well established and control is difficult at best.
I have seen sites where the landowner just let the sand pine grow. What usually happens is the sand pine crowds out the longleaf and you get a thick sand pine stand with pockets of longleaf. Neither will provide a good stand of timber that can be harvested in 20 years.
So what can a landowner do?
First, pull every small sand pine seedling out as soon as you see it. As the tree gets older you will not be able to pull it by hand. If there is too much acreage or you wait too long, your best option is to manually cut the sand pine off below the lowest branch. Even a tiny branchlett left on the trunk will resprout. If you get below the lowest branchlett, the tree will die. The quickest way to cut these saplings down is with a commercial grade weed eater with a saw blade attachment. Some people have used chainsaws but this involves a lot of stooping over. Either method will work, it’s just about how much work you want to put into the project. Leave the cut sand pine in place as long as they are not laying on top of your longleaf. A year or two later you can run a fire through the area and the dead sand pine will provide fuel for that fire. Just make sure you don’t have a combination of too much fuel and small vulnerable aged longleaf. Burn in the winter where you more likely have lower temperatures. That too will help prevent damage to young vulnerable longleaf.
If the thought of pulling or cutting the sand pine seems like too much work, you can always hire a contractor to do the work. This can get expensive on large tracts of land as Buz Harris found out. He chose to do part of the work himself and contract the rest. He and his son-in-law, daughter, wife and grandchildren all got involved in the process. The rest was contracted to a forestry crew who had about 20 employees and moved through the property at lightning speed. They were very experienced, having just cleared many acres of sand pine on Eglin Air Force Base just prior to starting this job. If you are interested in removing regenerated sand pine from your longleaf plantings, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has the Longleaf Pine Initiative and the Working Lands for Wildlife Program that will help cost-share the work. Visit your local NRCS District Conservationist or contact a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Landowner Assistance Program biologist for more information.