Newsletter Stories

Monday, 15 January 2024
Innovative Forest Managers

By: Tom Kain

In November 2023, I had the opportunity to be an observer during the Milliken Advisors group Forest Management audit. The audit covered group members in both South Carolina and North Carolina. This is an area that I worked in many years ago. It was great to get back there and see how forestry had changed. During the audit, I saw several innovative approaches to managing southern yellow pine.

One property we visited during the audit was the Hoke Community Forest (HCF), which is under a unique longleaf pine restoration plan developed by Milliken Advisors, along with partners at Enviva, the Sandhills Prescribed Burn Association, National Wildlife Federation, The Longleaf Alliance, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, USDA-NRCS, the County of Hoke, and the North Carolina Forest Service. Additional consultative partners and stakeholders include The Nature Conservancy, The Conservation Fund, USDOD-Fort Liberty, and the Lumbee Tribe of NC. The Hoke Community Forest is a 500-acre forest with planted loblolly pine stands and hardwood-dominated areas along Nicholson and Rockfish Creeks. The team’s long-term goals are to restore the longleaf pine ecosystem and protect the hardwood stands that occur along Rockfish and Nicholson Creeks, which contain a unique stand of Atlantic White Cedar trees and mature bottomland hardwoods and preserve them as a High Conservation Value Forest (HCVF) type. Before achieving the HCF’s FSC certification, Milliken Advisors conducted a comprehensive forest inventory and assessment of High Conservation Values, and with its partners conducted an extensive community stakeholder consultation.

Foresters from Milliken Advisors have developed a long-term plan to restore the Longleaf pine ecosystem on the property utilizing circular tree gaps in all the existing loblolly pine stands ranging from one-half to two acres in size and thinning the loblolly areas in between the gaps. This variable gap method allows managers to carefully phase in longleaf pine within existing loblolly stands while maintaining and enhancing critical understory plant and animal biodiversity. This method of harvesting is not common in Southern pine forest management but is used in other areas of the US. Step two is conducting periodic controlled burns with the assistance of the Sandhills Prescribed Burning Association. Step three is planting longleaf pine seedlings in the gaps. The first three steps were accomplished over the last three years. The timber sale generated money for the County of Hoke, which they plan to reinvest in the property, creating walking trails and interpretive signs for the public.

Since the County of Hoke owns this forest, county officials want to ensure that the property is used for the benefit of the community beyond revenue generation. In accomplishing that goal, a community use plan is being developed to encourage residents to use the forest for healthy outdoor activities like walking. The property also makes an excellent outdoor classroom to educate the public about forestry, prescribed fire, botany, tree planting, and natural resource conservation. The first learning event held was a tree planting in December of 2022. The event had over 100 community members, school children, Boy Scouts, and others present.

Controlled burning will be accomplished on a schedule to control competing vegetation and keep the fire fuel loads suppressed. The next timber harvest will occur in about seven years or when the thinned areas require another thinning. The first gaps are anticipated to be well-established with advanced longleaf pine regeneration by then. Additional gaps can then be created to create another age class of longleaf pine. Community events will occur according to the plan currently under development.

The style of management that is being tried in the Hoke Community Forest could be a model for more Southern family forest landowners and community forests to use. The forest managers I spoke with believe this method may better align with family forest landowners' and municipal ownership objectives. According to the USFS National Woodland Owners Survey, timber harvesting is generally low on the list of reasons landowners own land. When harvesting occurs for silvicultural or monetary reasons, using gaps and thinning may be a better strategy than typical pine management recommendations. The partners involved in this experimental project are putting forth an innovative and adaptive approach to pine management that may better achieve community forest owners’ and family forest timberland owners’ objectives for keeping timberland.