Monday, January 16, 2012

Putting the "Natural" Ecosystem Back in the South


The Natural Resources Law & Policy book that I use challenges the class to consider "what is natural?" before embarking on the course. Is it "natural" to allow the Florida Panther population to genetically bottleneck and die out, or is it "natural" for humans to intervene and introduce related subspecies of western mountain lions into the Florida population to raise genetic diversity and save some semblance of the species? Is it "natural" to put handrails in the mountains to allow people to access and experience nature directly, or is it "natural" to leave human constructs out of nature even if few can visit those locations? I could go on and on. But I do like to relay to my students one of my personal experiences with this question. The forestland I grew up on in south Alabama is about 75% monoculture pine and 25% beautiful hardwood. I always loved the hardwood portion of the property, because it seemed to me to be so much more diverse - with a wide array of tree and plant species, a distinct "forest" smell, more contrasting colors, etc. You can see the transition from our hardwood to our pine portion of land in this picture:

Panoramic View of Hardwood-Pine

I would hear stories from my mother about how the entire acreage once looked like the hardwood portion, until the forest companies my grandfather leased the land to came in and clearcut the hardwood to plant monoculture pine. To me the hardwood portion was "natural," and man had replaced it with a quite unnatural, boring (to me at the time) "farm" of trees. Only later did I learn that my conception of what was "natural" for a southeastern forest was quite wrong.

Only when man began suppressing fire on large scales did the hardwoods creep out of the watersheds, soggy bottoms, and hollows and into the upland areas. Indeed, nearly the entire southeast historically looked far more like the pine forest in the right portion of the image above, as it was almost entirely covered by the longleaf pine ecosystem (see image at the top of the post). Here is a prototypical longleaf stand: 

Longleaf habitat

The longleaf ecosystem has been reduced by 97% due to urbanization and development as well as forestry practices. Even so, consider these facts (found here):

  • The ecosystem contains 29 threatened and endangered species (including the gopher tortoise and the red-cockaded woodpecker).
  • Almost 900 plant species are found only in longleaf pine forests.
  • There are as many as 40 to 50 different plant species in one square meter of longleaf forest.
  • 170 of the 290 reptile and amphibian species found in the Southeast live in the longleaf ecosystem.

Given the importance of the ecosystem, the Conservation Fund joined more than 20 nonprofits and government agencies to embark on "America's Longleaf Initiative," which aims to triple the amount of longleaf pine ecosystem in its historic range from 3.4 to 8 million acres. We often focus on endangered and threatened species, but I think we tend to forget that entire ecosystems are imperiled (ecosystems that themselves are home to numerous endangered and threatened species). With only 3% of the longleaf pine ecosystem left, I can only hope that these restoration efforts can succeed in putting the "natural" ecosystem back in the South - I now find it quite beautiful.

- Blake Hudson

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That's really interesting Lance. Reminds me of another example in the book, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. It is highly contaminated and is listed as a priority Superfund site. But because there has been no human development there, much of the wildlife has returned and the ecosystem is flourishing. So, is it more natural to leave it contaminated so human's don't develop it and wildlife can subsist, or to clean it up and have it become a shopping mall parking lot? Of course, I joke (halfway joking anyway) with my students that what the story really means is that "humans are worse than hazardous waste for the environment." I hope we can use the qualities that make us human - the ability to choose otherwise - to overcome that seeming current state of affairs.

Posted by: Blake | Jan 17, 2012 8:40:50 AM

Great post Blake. Your experience reminds me of one I had last year while visiting at the University of Oregon. Our family decided that one worthy service activity would be to help pull invasive English Ivy out of the beautiful Douglas Fir forest in Hendricks Park near the University. I came to understand that, like your hardwood forest, the "old growth" Doug Fir in that area existed only because of urbanization and fire suppression. It kind of dampened my fervor for pulling out the English Ivy. If you go back far enough in geologic history, you can find about any type of environment for any given place. In that sense, a chemical-laced concrete jungle seems much more "natural"; it's just not my preferred version of nature.

Posted by: Lance N. Long | Jan 17, 2012 8:28:04 AM

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