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Painting the Landscape with Fire: Longleaf Pines and Fire Ecology Hardcover – July 15, 2013
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"This book is a tour de force exploring the myriad ecological connections within the longleaf pine ecosystem while demonstrating its total dependence upon natural and cultural fire for its continued existence."--Robert W. McFarlane, consulting ecologist, McFarlane & Associates, and author of A Stillness in the Pines: The Ecology of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.
"Painting the Landscape with Fire weaves three narratives into its masterful account of the longleaf-pine forest. The fascinating story of its distinctive ecosystem supports Den Latham's explanation of why both wildfires and controlled burns are increasingly recognized as essential to its health, while his profiles of numerous people who live and work in this forest contribute a rich cultural perspective as well as a skein of droll dialogue."--John Elder, author of Reading the Mountains of Home and co-editor of the Norton Book of Nature Writing
"Den Latham's Painting the Landscape with Fire is a helpful volume for anyone who wants to understand the importance of fire to the South's beautiful forests of longleaf pine. Focusing on the Sandhills region of South Carolina, Latham converses with landowners, foresters, botanists and biologists to show the challenges that forest managers face in using fire to manage forests in a rapidly developing South."--Larry Earley, author of Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest
From the Inside Flap
A revealing look at the role of prescribed burns in sustaining the longleaf pine forests of the Southeast
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Longleaf pine ecology once dominated large areas of the American South. Today, they tend to persist on poor soils like sand hills, leading some to assume that these are the sorts of sites longleaf prefer. More likely, they are the sites left to longleaf, places hard to log or unattractive for agriculture. The initial decimation of the longleaf ecosystem came when the piney forests were exploited for turpentine production and timber. They did not return because longleaf were often replaced by easier to establish loblolly pine forests and because fire was excluded.
Without frequent fire, longleaf will lose in competition with hardwood species and loblolly pine. A particularly strong and persistent competitor is the sweet gum. Fire tips the scales in favor of longleaf. Longleaf seedlings can tolerate fire that will kill loblolly, hardwoods and various brush. Longleaf has a unique set of adaptation. The seedlings are largely immune to fire. They grow a sturdy root system before growing up. They look like grass for a couple years and grow little above ground. In the grass stage, they are largely immune to all but the hottest fires. All at once they transition from the grass stage to the rocket stage. They might grow six feet in a single year with few or no branches along the way. This protects the terminal bud from many fires, since the fire can burn the stem, but there are no big branches to carry the fire to the living and growing top buds.
Unfortunately, fire use is declining, usually for liability and/or pollution control reasons. Professionals do not use the term “controlled fire” because no fire is 100% under control. They prefer the term “prescribed burns.” Any fire can get out of control and there are liability issues. These are becoming worse as there are more people building cottages, cabins and even houses in what used to be large expanses of forests. This human habitation also impacts from the pollution point of view. Where there is fire, there is smoke. Nobody likes the smoke and it may cause problems for viability and health issues.
Then there is the problem of carbon release. This is not really the issue it seems, but perception is as important as reality. Carbon from a burn will not in the long run be a net carbon emission. One reason is that the forest will burn sooner or later and if not in a prescribed way, in a worse one. Even if it does not burn, the litters will decompose, releasing carbon. Beyond that, green vegetation comes back quickly and stronger after a burn. By the end of the growing season, the area will be green and lush. More important, the fire burns above ground. Much of the carbon is below ground or in the tree trunks not burned. Regular fires actually sequester MORE carbon in roots and soils. It is hard to believe this when you see the smoke, but regular fires are helping to sequester carbon, not emit it.
As I wrote above, fire is necessary for the maintenance of longleaf pine and for the grassland and forbes that cover the ground. This is great for wildlife, so much so that bobwhite quail is sometimes called a “fire bird,” since it proliferates after fire. Frequent fires keep the ground clearer, so that the chicks can find seeds and the plants encouraged by fire are homes to insects that the chicks need for protein. Consider that a chick is only a couple of inches tall. It needs a place where it can see enough to find food but one that provides enough cover that the chick does not become food for predators. +
Land managers and owners need to make some tradeoffs. The longleaf takes a little longer to establish compared with loblolly. Longleaf wood is better quality, but the longer growing time is a consideration to humans who know they may not live long enough to benefit from the longer rotation. In a natural setting, longleaf live a much longer time than loblolly. Longleaf may live 400 years (the oldest known was 462 years old when the book was written in 2013). Loblolly is lucky to be robust at the century mark.
There is a good chance that longleaf will be reestablished across its range, but it will never again achieve its old distribution. Interesting side note, forests in the American South owe much of their existence to the boll weevil. If you looked out over a tidewater landscape in South Carolina in 1910, would see mostly fields with just a few shade trees. Weevils, among other factors, made field agriculture less profitable and trees returned. Longleaf returned less than it might have because of the exclusion of fire, mentioned above. In the early days of the Forest Service, they campaigned against fire and succeeded very well. In a landscape painted by fire, taking that off the pallet changes the art.
“A Landscape Painted by Fire” is an excellent and informative book. I recommend it to anybody interested in ecology, restoration and naturalism in general.
Mr. Latham writes not as a scientist but as a concerned and curious citizen, eager to learn about the environment which was literally in his backyard, the longleaf pine ecosystem. As he seeks out the managers and workers in the nearby Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge, he is quickly directed toward an investigation of the role of fire in these ancient forests. The story he tells reads almost like a novel as he weaves the biology, natural history, geology, politics, meteorology, and human history of this area of the Carolinas into a tale which is worth our very careful consideration.
We learn about Red Cockaded Woodpeckers, biting yellow flies, the ancient Appalachian Mountains, wild turkeys, white wicky plants, feral hogs, pygmy rattlesnakes, and, of course, the longleaf pines themselves. He takes us deep into the woods to visit the "Grandfather Pine" which sprouted way back in 1548 long before Jamestown, Virginia or Plymouth Rock. He follows the fire crews who set carefully planned fires in the forest thereby protecting and enhancing it, doing what nature would do by means of lightning.
This is also a story of: the men and women who work in our forests and natural areas, the complexity and fragility of our ecosystems, and the scientists who have dedicated their careers to unraveling these interactions. Latham also brings some of the great writers to the forefront (Henry David Thoreau, William Blake, Aldo Leopold) as he includes their wisdom on these topics.
The late Wallace Stegner, writer and environmentalist, would have appreciated this volume. In Stegner's biography of the historian Bernard DeVoto, Stegner wrote praising DeVoto's "history by synecdoche, the illumination of whole areas and periods through concentration upon one brief time, one single sequence, a few representative characters." This is essentially what Den Latham has done here... he has illuminated the very large and very important topic of human impact on the natural world and natural ecosystems by telling the specific story of the impact of fire on the longleaf pine ecosystem. The wild turkeys, pygmy rattlesnakes, red cockaded woodpeckers, biting flies, and white wicky are truly at our mercy. As Mr. Latham quotes the Sandhills Refuge manager, "I believe these species and this habitat are God's creations. Why should we have the right to determine which species live and which die?" Why indeed? This volume has earned its five stars.
Longleaf pine forests are in danger of disappearing along with the plants and animals that inhabit this unique environment. An example of the chapter titles can give the reader a good idea of what this book is about. As a naturalist the chapters that most interested me are: "Snake Cruising I" (the cruising is done an night and live snakes are captured, studied and released), Snake Cruising II", In Search of the Elusive White Wicky" (a shrub found in only a few locations worldwide), "Wild Turkeys", "Red Cockaded Woodpeckers" (an endangered species found only in longleaf pine forest), and "Quail in a Longleaf Pine Habitat". There is also a discussion of the geology of the region, and its relationship to the indigenous wildlife. Prescribed burning as a means of preserving this endangered environment is covered using Latham's experiences during controlled burns.
Anyone interested in learning about this distinctive environment, the people who work to protect it, and what is being done to preserve it would enjoy this book.