What To Do About Those Alabama Pine Trees | Great Days Outdoors

Creating a mosaic of pines and hardwoods on your land is ideal.

 

Pine trees are one of the most varied and hardy native tree species in Alabama. Native pines are also one of the most valuable commercial timber sources used for construction, furniture, pulpwood, land management and more.

Sadly, many landowners mistakenly believe that pines carry little to no value for wildlife, so they cut them down. But, Andrew Baril, Alabama regional extension agent, says cutting them is a mistake.




“People need to understand that pines play a valuable role in the health and wellbeing of Alabama’s wildlife, including deer, turkey, quail and numerous songbirds,” Baril said. “True, when it comes to wildlife, oaks are the no. 1 food source. But, believe it or not, pines are no. 2. In fact, a whitetail relies on oak trees for approximately 50% of its diet and pine trees for 25%. They’ll eat a pine’s needles and twigs. You’ll even catch one occasionally chewing on green pine cones. Turkeys rely on pines just as much as they do oaks for their diet.”

“Pines play a valuable role in the health and wellbeing of Alabama’s wildlife, including deer, turkey, quail and numerous songbirds.” — Andrew Baril

Some Alabama creatures rely primarily on pine trees to sustain them.

Those that do, such as the cockaded woodpecker, gopher tortoise and indigo snake, are on the threatened or endangered species list due to the loss of pine forests. There’s even talk about putting the Eastern diamondback rattler on the endangered species list as well due to loss of its pine habitat.

“When people think of pines, they often think of pine plantations,” Baril said. “They see the pine needles underneath the trees and the lack of wildlife and assume pines have no redeeming qualities when it comes to wildlife. True, pine plantations are not good habitat for wildlife, but other pine forests are extremely beneficial for Alabama’s animals and birds.”

 

Photo submitted by Stephanie Mallory

 

Here in Alabama, we have six main types of southern yellow pine—longleaf, loblolly, slash, shortleaf, Virginia and spruce.

“Longleaf pine is our state tree,” he said. “Longleaf pine once occupied 80 million acres from Virginia to Texas. Sadly, we cut it down to just three million acres. But, we’re learning from our mistakes, and five years ago we began turning a corner. We are now up to four million acres of longleaf pines, and we hope to continue to increase the acreage.”

Shortleaf pine has the widest range of any native pine, spanning much of the country, but in the last 30 years we’ve reduced its range by 50 % due to what Baril calls “little leaf disease.”




“When I was in college, forestry students were taught to cut shortleaf pines out of a stand of timber. This way of thinking tremendously reduced this tree’s range. But that mindset has changed since the 1970s. Now we understand that these trees play an important role in the ecosystem.”

In addition to providing food for wildlife, pine forests also provide shelter. A typical hardwood forest is much thicker in top cover than a large pine forest, which prevents sunlight from reaching the ground so ground cover doesn’t thrive.

Pine forests are more open at the top, allowing sunlight to filter through to the understory, so a larger variety of ground plants can grow and flourish to produce a variety of food and shelter for wildlife.

Baril says a pine forest can offer a variety of opportunities for animals and birds throughout its different phases of growth.

“After a forest has been disturbed by a hurricane, tornado or wildfire, or by logging, pines will often sprout up as the first new growth on the forest floor,” he said. “Those small pines provide shelter for deer, turkeys, rabbits and quail. Once the pines reach approximately 10 feet tall, they can be so dense in numbers that people can’t walk through them, but deer can and they use them for shelter.

“Then, as the pines continue to grow, thinning out and opening up underneath, the turkey and quail return and the deer continue to use the area. When trees are six inches tall, there may be 20,000 on an acre of land, but by the time they reach 100 feet tall, you’ll only have approximately 100 trees in that same space.”

“In areas where your soil is dry or sandy, you’ll want to grow pines. Where your soil is moist, grow hardwoods.”

When it comes to planting trees on your own land, Baril recommends planting the type of tree that is best suitable for the type of soil you have.

In areas where your soil is dry or sandy, you’ll want to grow pines. Where your soil is moist, grow hardwoods, although there are some pines that grow well in wet soil and some hardwoods that grow well in drier soil.

Creating a mosaic of pines and hardwoods on your land is ideal.




“Back when the Native Americans lived throughout Alabama, the forests looked much differently than they do now. The forests were mixed with hardwoods and pines and they were much more open. The buffalo grazed through the forests, keeping them cleared of a lot of the thin trees, shrubby bushes and plants we see today.

Baril recommends prescribed fires for clearing out the underbrush.

“Fire will improve the forest for wildlife use. It thins out weakened trees—the small trees that are growing under the big trees. If the tree is 10 feet tall, deer can’t take advantage of it. By bringing a fire through the forest, you top-kill those 10-foot-tall trees.

“You kill everything that is above the surface of the soil, but the roots are still alive, so the tree sprouts new growth from the ground up. Deer can take advantage of smaller trees. Fire is a key element that we took out of the woods in the 1900s. We’re just now beginning to put it back.”

As Baril stated, landowners and forestry professionals are learning from the mistakes of the past. They are beginning to implement management processes designed to increase and enhance healthy pine forests.

These changes will hopefully reap benefits for both the state’s native wildlife and human inhabitants.

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