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Wildlife biologist Allison Cochran in March in a section of the Bankhead National Forest marked for restoration.
Daily file photo by Gary Lloyd
Wildlife biologist Allison Cochran in March in a section of the Bankhead National Forest marked for restoration.

RESTORING THE BANKHEAD
Panel hears options for forest

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com · 340-2443

MOULTON — Sometimes the only way to repair something is to destroy it.

That’s the consensus regarding the restoration of Bankhead National Forest, according to members of the Bankhead Community Liaison Panel.

The advisory group of area residents and conservationists is choosing a plan to repair damage caused by the timber industry.

The government used to let timber companies clear-cut areas of the national forest to support loblolly pine plantations, a practice that later proved devastating. Since the early 1960s, about 70,000 acres of the 182,000-acre forest have been converted to these plantations.

By altering the natural makeup of the forest, they damaged existing wildlife and vegetation, and created an ideal habitat for certain diseases and insects, said Wild South Program Director Vince Meleski.

Officials took notice in the late ’90s when pesky Southern pine beetles swept through and wiped out much of the forest. One-species plantations serve as buffets for insects and disease, whereas natural, mixed-forest communities are much more resistant, said Meleski.

“As new science became clear, (the U.S. Forest Service) came to the conclusion that it was a bad idea to plant these trees,” he said.

“Man comes along and changes things to make money, and it causes tremendous problems. You can’t do better than nature.”

It might sound counterintuitive to solve the problem by doing the same thing that caused it — interfering with nature — but Meleski and other conservationists believe man must step in to bring Bankhead back to its original state.

The Southeast Regional Division of the U.S. Forest Service approved the Bankhead Health and Restoration Plan in 2003.

It calls for all parts of the forest to be managed and restored to a natural state.

The final goal is to convert about 59,000 acres of existing pine plantations to mixed forests with oaks, hickories and pines. The plan also calls for the development of 4,901 acres of longleaf pine woodlands, 13,467 acres of shortleaf pine woodlands and 12,042 acres of oak woodlands.

But don’t expect to notice any significant changes this lifetime. District Ranger Glen Gaines said the process could take centuries.

Thinning loblolly

The Forest Service is in the middle of the first phase of restoration, which includes thinning all loblolly pine plantations between 15 and 45 years old. By taking out about a third of the loblolly pines, forest officials can open the area to allow other trees to grow, eliminating the plantation and creating a more natural forest that includes a wider variety of vegetation.

That phase is expected to be completed in 2008, but may extend to 2009, said Meleski.

Future phases will not be forestwide, but instead will focus on specific areas.

“In those limited areas, they plan to do everything that needs to be done,” said Meleski. “Each one will take about three years and will continue until we’ve covered the entire forest. It’ll take a while.”

Bankhead officials presented two viable options to the advisory panel Thursday for the second phase, which covers 12,486 acres at the Grindstone, Mill, Inman, Rockhouse and Hoghouse watersheds.

They had expected the panel to make a recommendation following the presentation, but panel members agreed they needed more information to decide which plan is best.

Those areas are more than 50 percent loblolly pine forests. The goal is to drastically change the composition to include mostly short-leaf woodlands and oak forests in the Grindstone, Mill and Inman watersheds, and mostly longleaf woodlands and oak forests in the Rockhouse and Hoghouse watersheds.

The two major differences between the Forest Service’s plans are increased patch cuts and the use of herbicides to accelerate restoration in Alternative 2.

A patch cut is a 3- to 5-acre tract where all trees have been removed. While initially unsightly and potentially harmful to land and wildlife, patch cuts can help in ways that previous thinning methods cannot, said Meleski.

“Thinning is great if your desired future condition is hardwood because oaks grow up naturally,” he said. “But if you’re going to convert to longleaf or shortleaf pine, you actually have to clear the ground and plant them because they won’t come up naturally.”

While the first option included about 20 patch cuts, the second included nearly 200.

Herbicide issue

Vocal panel members all seemed to support the higher number of patch cuts, but their cohesion dissolved during a discussion about the use of herbicides, a practice included in the second option.

Some members said herbicides are the only way to eliminate invasive species, but others referenced dangerous herbicides like DDT that were once considered safe.

“I think if you can accomplish the same task without using them, it would be preferable,” said panel member Dr. Charles Borden.

“Why would we use a non-natural system to get to a natural system?”

Both plans would restore the forest eventually, but Alternative 2 would do it faster, said Forest Service silviculturist Stephanie Love.

Members agreed to delay choosing a plan until more information is available. The next phase of the restoration project isn’t expected to begin until 2009.

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