By Guest Columnist STACY SHELTON, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Southeast Region
Development, dams, pollution, invasive species and water scarcity are a few of the challenges facing the survival of many fish and wildlife species today.
Climate change is expected to exacerbate them all.
In recent years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began taking a hard look at how the changing climate – marked by warming temperatures, rising sea levels and new precipitation patterns – is and will impact the species we are charged with protecting.
Working with our partners, we developed a strategy to ensure future generations will know the red-cockaded woodpecker found in south Georgia’s longleaf pine ecosystems, or be able to watch a loggerhead sea turtle lumber up the beach to lay her eggs on one of the state’s barrier islands.
The Service is also trying to engage a broader audience in this very important conversation.
Since Earth Day, we have shared one story each weekday from a different state about climate impacts on fish and wildlife. That’s 50 stories from 50 states, told over 50 days. The Georgia story posts this Tuesday, at this link. The series ends June 30.
Georgia’s story is about how Fish and Wildlife Service biologists are working with multiple partners, including the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Georgia Forestry Commission, the Longleaf Alliance and private landowners, to restore portions of the majestic longleaf pine forest that once dominated more than half the state.
For many reasons, the longleaf pine is our tree of the past and the future.
In the face of accelerating climate change, it’s our best bet for several reasons. Because the longleaf pine evolved on this landscape, it is disease-resistant, thrives in frequent, low-intensity fire, and can withstand hurricane-force winds.
In its 2009 report, Standing Tall: How Restoring Longleaf Pine Can Help Prepare the Southeast for Global Warming, the National Wildlife Federation contends longleaf also should be the centerpiece of carbon sequestration efforts in the Southeast.
The report cites the long life of individual longleaf pines (up to 450 years) and their low-risk for rapidly releasing carbon due to disease or wildfires. The report also makes a credible economic argument for timber growers to choose longleaf over slash or loblolly pines, particularly in a changing climate.
For the Fish and Wildlife Service, restoring the longleaf ecosystem becomes a no-brainer when you factor in the wide array of species that depend on it.
Because of the incredible biodiversity in the grasses and herbaceous flowering plants that can grow in longleaf forests, they are home to 29 federally protected species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker. Nearly 900 plant species are found only in the longleaf ecosystem.
Last year, the Service spent about $1.2 million across the Southeast to help private landowners plant longleaf pine trees, remove invasive species, and prescribe fire to maintain forest health.
Laurie Fenwood, the Service’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative Program Coordinator calls longleaf pine the “wonder tree, because it’s good for everything. Whatever the question is, the answer is longleaf pine.”