Logging and Forest Restoration in Arkansas

Project type:  Woodland Restoration (thinning, prescribed fire)
Location:  Warren Prairie Natural Area, Arkansas [see in Google Maps]
Status: Patchwork of complete and incomplete areas, open to public


Driving through southern Arkansas feels a lot like driving though Iowa, row after row of crops as far as the eye can see. Except instead of corn the crops are trees. Every few seconds a flatbed roars past loaded with logs, leaving in its wake the smell of pine and a reminder that this is logging country. In Arkansas the industry ships $7.3 billion in products annually, employs 43,371 residents and covers 58% of the state's total surface area[1].  But the region is also home to the endangered shortleaf pine ecosystem and 'species of greatest conservation need' (SGCNs) such as the red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW).


Logging and conservation.  Seems like a guaranteed conflict. But I spoke with Clint Harris from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to see if there's hope at reconciliation.


 "It's looking way better," he said.  These days we have the ecological know-how to manage land for both interests.  He cited large scale collaborations between TNC and a range of major players, from corporate (like the logging tycoon Potlatch, who has a 16,000-acre conservation easement[2]), to state (like the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission, who manages the 20,000-acre Gene Rush WMA) to national (like the U.S. Forest Service, who manages Ouachita, Ozark and Kisatchie National Forests).  All are either managing their timber stands for ecosystem health, or managing their restored ecosystems for timber profit.  Either way, the future seems bright.... 

Especially with beacons like the Warren Prairie Natural Area (WPNA). It's a model for restoration of flatwoods and salt barrens, as well as RCW and other SGCN habitat.  Yet  WPNA is intimately linked to logging.  Its 4,616 acres are surrounded by logging country.  It was previously a logging plantation itself.  And believe it or not logging was a primary tool used in it's restoration: thinning to a low-density, healthy ecosystem.  Furthermore, it will continue to be logged, selectively and scientifically, until achieving an ideal, open forest.

So let's visit the site for a closer look at logging in Arkansas, as well as the restoration process. I also complied a "how-to" video on Basal Area, the crucial concept for restoring forests with logging.

History 
  • The logging industry spread to Arkansas following the Civil War. Mills, railroads, and entire communities grew in support.
  • In the late 1800's and early 1900's logging companies practiced “cut out and get out,” leaving both landscapes and towns empty.[3]
  • By the 1920's the region had been almost entirely clearcut.  (Regeneration methods, like seed tree or shelterbelt, and other "sustained yield forestry" methods weren't adopted until later).
  • In the 1930's and 40's, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) replanted much of the region, mostly with loblolly or slash pine due to their ease of transplanting, faster growth and higher timber values.

    Display on wall of Kisatchie Ranger Station.

Restoration
WPNA was first established in 1983 on 300 acres, and has since expanded to 4,616.  The site's major objectives have rallied around species conservation:
  • Leuconotopicus borealis or red-cockaded woodpecker, or RCW, is a bird you're probably already familiar with if you've read anything on restoration in the region, like my other articles, or any USFS proposals, or research, or anything at all.  You may find it repetitive, like that tapping sound in a pine forest...

  • Photo from Louisiana DWF website
  • Geocarpon minimum is a federally protected plant and part-time coin model.  It's a prehistoric relic with few remaining populations, due to its small size, intolerance of competition, and dependence on specific habitats, salty ones.  In 1938 the State protected some of the salt barrens in the area for this species.[4] Now WPNA has the largest population in Arkansas.[5]
It turns out I missed the growing season or Geocarpon minimum (they're ephemeral, see Ecology section in Glossary), even though I brought the requisite dime.  I also brought a quarter for measuring basal area.  This turned out to be quite a costly visit.

Well-managed Loblolly plantation (BA = 90)
Basal area is a helpful tool for measuring forest density.  It's also a main criterion of forest restoration projects. Basal area is the total amount of space occupied by tree trunks, measured in square feet per acre.
  • The pine-grassland ecosystem historically was 40-60 BA, according to 19th century GLO records.  (The historic condition is also the desired future condition (DFC) in restoration.)
  • Managed timber stands ideally fluctuate between 60 and 120 BA, between periodic thinnings every 7-8 years. [6]
  • Unmanaged forests without fire or thinning can reach 150 BA or higher.
Young, unthinned Loblolly planatation (BA = 150)
Restored Habitat at WPNA (BA = 60) 
To determine BA you can measure the area of every tree within the acre and add.  Or you can use the Point Sampling technique, demonstrated in my "how to" video below.  Also check out the video for a comparison of loblolly plantation vs. restored habitat.  For more on the "why" of this measurement technique, the Alabama Cooperative Extension has a handy pdf guide.[7]


Managing for both Timber and Wildlife
State and national forests like Gene Rush WMAOuachita and Kisatchie all manage their land for both simultaneously.  For example, the USFS at Ouachita noted a long-term increase in timber value following burning and thinning management regimes[8]. As for nationwide statistics, the USFS sold 2.4 billion board feet of timber products from restoration efforts (thinning) on 195,000 acres, a number they intended to increase annually.[9]

Dwarf palmetto, the understory of sorta-tropical Arkansas.
What about the revenues from these thinnings?  They help fund further restoration efforts.  According to Clint in regards to WPNA:
"We utilize several logging operations yearly to move toward obtaining our vision of DFC (desired future conditions). Logging has provided us not only funds to improve habitat through stewardship activities, but also provides funds to help protect land in diverse ecosystems. That being said logging in WPNA will continue to take place until the DFC are reached at a fire maintainable scale."[10]
 The USFS claims a similar use of income, in reference to the Ouachita NF:
"The use of sale proceeds to pay for midstory reduction and prescribed burning reduces the need to rely upon scare federal appropriated dollars, and results in the ability to restore much larger areas... In this context, timber sales are a means to an end rather than an end unto themselves.”[11]
Salt barrens put the "prairie" in Warren Prairie. 
While logging may have historically been a cause of ecosystem destruction, it can now be a tool of restoration.  Restoring forests with the labor of loggers and the profits of timber seems like a brilliant example of "the problem is the solution" mentality.  Brilliant and practical.  Cooperation not conflict, that seems to be the approach of conservationists like Clint Harris and the TNC.  That seems to be the key to restoring Arkansas' forests.



More on restoring the forests of Arkansas:


References
[1] Matthew Pelkki, "An Economic Assessment of Arkansas' Forest Industries," University of Arkansas-Monticello [pdf link]
[2] Don Bragg, et. al. "Moro Big Pine; Conservation and Collaboration in the Pine Flatwoods of Arkansas," Journal of Forestry (Sept., 2014): 446-456 [link]
[3] George Balogh, "Timber Industry," An Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture [link]
[4] "Warren Prairie Natural Area," Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission [link]
[5] Erin Leone "Warren Prairie Natural Area: an Ecological Oasis," US Fish and Wildlife Service [link]
[6] Dave Dickens, et. al., "Thinning Pine Plantations." [link]
[7] "Basal Area: A Measurement made for Management," Alabama A & M and  Auburn University [link]
[8] George Bukenhofer and L.D. Hedrik, "Shortleaf Pine-Bluestem Renewal," USFS website [link]
[9] “Increasing the Pace of Restoration and Job Creation of our National Forests,” USFS (Feb. 2012) [link]
[10] Clint Harris, private correspondence. November 12, 2015.
[11] L.D. Hedrick, et. al., "Shortleaf Pine-Bluestem Renewal in the Ouachita Mountains," USFS (2006).

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