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Understanding Forest Ecology with Dr. John Kush

Prescribed fire in a longleaf pine ecosystem located in the Weymouth Woods Sandhills nature Preserve located in Southern Pines, NC

When you are considering starting to manage your property, the amount of information you need to know about your land and what is on it might be overwhelming. However, understanding the site's ecology is very beneficial for creating a knowledge base to build off as you progress through your management journey. In Episode three of the podcast, I sit down with Dr. John Kush, a retired research fellow from Auburn University, to discuss the ecology and what landowners need to know about it.

You don't have to start knowing everything, as I discussed in the 4 W's, but using ecology as a base of understanding can help landowners use and take advantage of understanding the what, when, where, and why. Learning about what was historically on the landscape and what factors have led to our forest's condition today will help landowners decide on more ecologically responsible management. Managing your land to its ecological potential is not impossible; it requires looking at the ecology of the species on your land, understanding what used to be present, and then relating that to the ecology of those species and looking at the best management to accomplish your goals. Read below to begin your journey to better ecological management.

What is Forest Ecology

What Used to be on Your Property

How to Ecologically Manage Your Property


What is Forest Ecology

The idea of forest ecology is looking at a broader picture when you are considering the landscape. In other words, consider the landscape on your property instead of just the trees. Ecology encompasses the living and non-living parts of the environment and considers the interaction between living and non-living things and how those impact each other. So ecology is not just looking at the trees on your land when you think about forest management but also the climate, animals, and associated vegetation with those tree species and focuses on the ecosystem rather than the individual. In my Undergrad, we learned about forest cover types and how trees and vegetation were associated with each other on a large ecosystem scale. These cover types created an ecosystem beneficial to the wildlife in the area.

We must consider the human impact on the landscape before considering property management. There is no forest that we have not affected or impacted in some way. There also is a significant wildlife component to ecology, and wildlife affects the trees and vegetation just as much as the habitat affects the wildlife. You can only have one with the other; to have good wildlife on your property, you must have good, healthy forests. Consider the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, an endangered bird in the Southeastern United States. They require old-growth pine that has developed heart rot, where the inside of the tree decays, leaving cavities for the birds to nest in. They also require an open understory so that they can take off and fly. One part of the habitat without the other doesn't provide for the needs of wildlife.

What Used to be on Your Property

When deciding what species to put back on the landscape to manage our property ecologically, looking at the historical landscape and what species were present is essential. Historically in the southeast, our forests were much more open than they are today, and while forests were present, there was much more grassland than there currently is. The grassland may not have just been grass but could have been more of a savanna with trees interspersed across the landscape. Considering specific tree species on the landscape, pines would have been present in many areas. Longleaf pine would have been the predominant pine on many sites along the coastal areas extending north until there were frequent freezes. In areas with hardwoods, it could have been entirely hardwoods or a mixed pine-hardwood forest, but the hardwoods species present would have had thicker bark to withstand frequent fires that moved through the area.

Speaking of fire, it is amazing how nature, when left unattended, can provide the management needed to sustain our forest ecosystems. Historically, fires were frequent across the landscape, and because of how frequent they were, they were low-intensity fires. Lightning storms started these fires during the summer months, and without the roads present would cover square miles of land before reaching a natural break. The Native Americans also understood the benefit of fire, and evidence suggests that they would start burns during the late winter and early spring to help grasses grow on the landscape. In addition to fire, grazing was much more common on the landscape than it is now, and looking at what animals were present can give us ideas of what the landscape would have been like. Historically, bison were present in the southeast, and their grazing would have mimicked fire in creating a disturbance to help species grow. Considering bison also tell managers that grasses would have needed to be more predominant on the landscape to support the species.

How to Ecologically Manage Your Property

It may be overwhelming information to consider when looking at what was historically present on the landscape, including the wildlife, trees, and understory vegetation. There are places to start and resources to use; however, that will help you understand what species were on your property. Start by looking at what soil you have present on the site using Web Soil Survey. Watch our video on mapping if you want to learn how to use and understand the Web Soil Survey database. We can then use the Silvic's Manual to consider what trees grow complimentary to each other and where they should fit on the landscape.

Understanding historic management is critical to getting species back on the site. Tools that create a disturbance, such as fire, cutting trees, or grazing animals, can help reset the forest ecosystem. Burning has a bad image because of the raging wildfires in the western United States; however, fire benefits the landscape. Also, the fires we use in management are lower-intensity fires that we control where they go and when they burn. If you want to burn, get trained and use the proper permission avenues for burning because they can be complex practices. Cutting trees can also be beneficial, yet it has gotten a bad image recently. Cutting a tree is not bad; it can sometimes be the best thing we can do on our land. The idea of looking at a clearcut may be unsettling for some landowners who enjoy the aesthetics of their property; however, it is crucial to consider that nature takes trees through trees reaching maturity, disturbance, or competition.

Getting started with management on your property is also okay to start small. You don't have to go out and start managing your entire property immediately, but get started and observe the effects. A vital aspect of management is learning about your land and understanding our management's effect on it. There are several good ways to get started in observing your land. We can do something similar to Aldo Leopold in his book, "A Sand County Almanac," where he made observations for each month. First, I recommend picking one or two species on the landscape, observing them, and branching out as you progress. Another technique is taking before and after pictures of the area where you implement a management activity. A couple of ways I do this is by taking a picture directly before and directly after on my phone. You can then return later, take the same pictures, and look at the progress. Another thing that I am implementing on my property is trail cameras. They are inexpensive, but you can set them up and observe the ecology and interaction of the wildlife and forest and how your management impacts both.

The most important thing when managing your land is understanding the ecology. I cannot stress this enough, but understanding how everything interacts can save you time and money when starting management. On my property, for instance, we have a lot of loblolly pine that I want to convert to longleaf pine moving forward. I could cut everything and restart, but I need to consider the implications of that. In the podcast, Dr. Kush and I discuss that leaving the overstory pine would provide needles for fuel so that I can have prescribed fire. Cutting the trees would also introduce sunlight to the forest floor, and herbaceous vegetation growth would explode. That means more Chinese privet on my property, and I don't want to add more species to my invasive control if I can help it. However, if I don't cut anything, there is no room or sunlight for the longleaf pine seedlings to grow. Ecology is not just about understanding what species but also how the species interact so that we can start creating a timeline for the most effective management.

In conclusion, forest ecology is an important yet often overlooked topic in forest management. Understanding what species were historically present allows managers to plant native species that perform best on the site and benefit the environment most. When we plant trees or vegetation wherever we want, it can create unnecessary completion and stress that can significantly impact our forest ecosystem. The forest is a part of that ecosystem, and to provide effective management to improve the wildlife habitat, aesthetics, and legacy of our site, considering the ecology is essential.


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