by Deborah Kidd, Marketing Manager
Can our prescription for evergreen forest health in Washington equate to restoration in the flatwood savannas of the Mississippi Delta? Last week, I traded Washington for Louisiana to find out.
It was a bit of an ecological homecoming. I grew up in Florida, and I was keen to see the region through the conservation lens I’ve sharpened here in Washington. While my childhood wasn’t marked by river restoration or habitat conservation, I do know my way around swamps and wetlands. I know frogs and turtles and the Gulf of Mexico; or the rustle of reeds that reveal a gator lurking nearby.
Water all around
I joined colleagues for a field trip to The Nature Conservancy’s Abita Creek Flatwoods Preserve—a trek that included the 24-mile bridge spanning Lake Pontchartrain. My memory quickly recalled the southern sensation of water all around, even underneath.
In Washington we get our water steadily from above, but in the south water drips, flows and seeps. When rain sweeps through, it doesn’t plod along pensively. It means instant business: Thunder pounds, fat drops crash, lightning strikes.
On this afternoon we were fortunate for clear skies, but our surroundings offered constant reminder that we were hiking through a landscape-scale puddle. The preserve is marked by forests on low ridges that blend into wet savannas of broad swales. In the wide spaces between longleaf pines, pitcher plants snatch prey and tortoises burrow through tall grasses.
“It’s like a prairie with trees,” land steward Will de Gravelles told us. Landscape that, according to settlers’ lore, “you could run a horse through at full gallop.” Today, TNC’s preserves are pockets of biodiversity, de Gravelles explained, home to rare and endangered wetland plants and wildlife.
Longleaf pine flatwoods historically stretched from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle, and they were the dominant ecosystem before timber and agriculture industries set roots. But the natural order ultimately suffered. Trees grew back in dense stands that choked out native grasses, plants and the wildlife dependent on them. Across the Mississippi Delta, TNC is restoring native habitat and protecting 10,000 acres of longleaf pine savanna.
Fire in the wetlands
I was surprised to learn that longleaf pine forests in Louisiana share a prescription for health with our Washington Cascades. While we are evergreen and snow-prone, and the West Gulf Coastal Plain is grassy and wet, we both bear legacies of clear cuts, natural disruption and wildfire suppression.
Prescribed fires in many settings help return landscapes to their natural balance, explained Tom Lyden, TNC’s ecological restoration technician for the region. Burning at low intensity, prescribed fires remove dead wood and thin dense stands that draw too much water. This applies in the cypress swamps of Louisiana just as it does among the ponderosa pines of Washington.
Natural fire is common in the flatwoods: Around every 2 years, a lightning strike sparks fire in TNC preserves along the Mississippi delta. In a healthy savanna, fire spreads thousands of acres, burning grasses to restore space for undergrowth and nourishing soil to promote healthy pines. “Prescribed fire brings back biodiversity,” Lydon noted.
Proven strategies meet common values
I am now back home in Western Washington, braving icy streets and our first real snow of the season. Our local landscape spared no time in reminding me of its stark contrast to the Louisiana savanna. But while temperatures slowly climb in the southeast and suddenly plummet in the northwest, I can’t help considering instead what we share across the miles, chief among these our commitment to the precious nature that surrounds us, wherever we may call home.