Officials with the U.S. Forest Service announced Wednesday a program of controlled burning, which is designed to prevent the formation of large, destructive wildfires and to create a better ecosystem for plants and animals.
Fire Management Officer Scott Layfield said the plan is similar to those of previous years, with forest rangers burning about 40,000 acres per year. He said officials try to keep areas of the forest on three- to four-year burn rotations.
Crews will be burning throughout the forest, but Layfield said key areas will be the southern portion of the Hollins Wildlife Management Area east of Sylacauga, and the Choccolocco Wildlife Management Area north of Heflin.
He said controlled burns can hinder motorists by throwing clouds of smoke over roadways, but forest service officials will publicize such dangers in local media outlets and on electronic highway signs.
Controlled burns help prevent large, destructive wildfires by consuming fuel sources such as fallen trees or pine needles. By burning the readily available fuel sources on a regular basis, rangers can prevent the buildup of dry vegetation that would bolster a massive wildfire.
The burns also create better habitats for animals and low-lying plant life by preventing a thick understory of trees and shrubbery that would intercept most of the sunlight. Instead, that sunlight will help create a greater diversity of smaller plants, which provide a food source and habitat for more species of wildlife.
One of the plants benefiting from the burning is the longleaf pine, a species that once dominated the landscape of the South but that nearly faced extinction decades ago.
The technique is vital for longleafs because the species evolved to be dependent on wildfires, which would stamp out other competing species to the tall pines.
“That system needs fire,” Layfield said.
Longleaf pines also are used as a home by the red cockaded woodpecker, which was listed as an endangered species in 1970.
Layfield said the Forest Service is also helping to increase the numbers of the woodpecker by installing wooden homes for the birds in the local forest. He said workers with the service also bring in birds from areas that have the birds to spare. For example, he said, a few of his co-workers soon will travel to Fort Benning, Ga., for a woodpecker run.
Layfield said the recovery efforts for both woodpeckers and longleaf pines are going well.
And for the last 18 years, officials with the Talladega National Forest have received help from the Longleaf Alliance in bringing back the pine species. The nonprofit organization raises funds for recovery efforts and conducts seminars teaching landowners how to create ideal habitats for longleafs.
Robert Abernethy, president of the Longleaf Alliance, said the namesake for his organization was pivotal for the settling of much of America.
He said longleafs produce more sap than any species of pine known to man. That sap creates a strong core that made the tree perfect for fence posts and foundations for log cabins. But more importantly, he said, the trees were used to make tar and turpentine that went to reinforce ships in the 1700s and 1800s.
It was the tree’s versatility that made the species go from a peak of 90 million acres of habitat to about 3.4 million acres in the 1970s and 80s. But Abernethy said that habitat has increased to about 4.4 million acres since the the Longleaf Alliance began.
He said the trees’ ties to the country’s history are why the organization’s campaign to educate the public about the tree is as important as the group’s restoration efforts.
“We've got to get that body of knowledge back,” he said.
For more information about the alliance, go to http://www.longleafalliance.org
Assistant Metro Editor Daniel Gaddy: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @DGaddy_Star.