Restoration of Longleaf Pine and Wiregrass Ecosystem
When the first European settlers arrived on this continent, there were 92 million acres of longleaf pine savannas stretching south from Virginia to Florida and westward to Texas. Today, less than 3 percent — about 2 million acres — of this important ecosystem remains, making it one of the most imperiled habitat types in our nation. Fort Stewart has more than 150,000 acres of upland forests that were once part of this vast pine savanna. This unique ecosystem is among the most diverse in the world. In addition to containing rare plants and animals not found elsewhere, this ecosystem is home to more breeding birds than any other Southeastern forest type and at least 122 endangered plant species.
In the 1990s, installation natural resource managers and military trainers discovered that open forest conditions, characterized by longleaf savannas was an attractive training landscape. Therefore, Fort Stewart made restoring the forest to pre-settlement conditions its top management priority, and the result has been a win-win for trainers and wildlife. In areas where longleaf pine and wiregrass are still present, restoration to the original forest can be achieved by the increased use of prescribed fire in the growing season as well as commercial harvest to thin out smaller pines and remove hardwoods. In areas where longleaf or wiregrass has been eliminated by farming and other management practices, a more intensive approach is necessary. Natural resource managers must work to restore native ground layer plant communities (primarily wiregrass) by harvesting the seed grown on the installation, and then sowing it on their ecological restoration sites.
The longleaf pine and its associated species are fire-dependent, meaning that fire plays a vital role in sustaining this ecosystem. Frequent fire also removes hardwood trees, which compete for limited resources and crowd out the less shade-tolerant pines. Fire also burns and consumes ground litter, which prepares a seedbed for longleaf pine and wiregrass seed germination. A number of animals benefit from prescribed fire as it creates open habitats and promotes nutritious forage when plants sprout back following fire. Using prescribed burning, Fort Stewart is able to restore approximately 150 acres a year. Once an area is restored, fire maintains this ecosystem.
Installation Environmental Division, Fort Stewart, Ga. Phone: (912)767-8795