For many of us, the thought of a forest catching fire brings to mind tragedies like the recent California wildfires or, closer to home, the 2011 Bastrop fires, when the most destructive wildfire in Texas’ history burned approximately 35,000 acres, causing severe damage to Bastrop State Park and destroying 1,600 homes. So you may wonder why we would be excited to have a property set on fire intentionally…
As introduced in a recent blog by TLC Board Member, Neel Baumgardner, Catahoula Forest is TLC’s first protected property. The preserve is bordered on three sides by the Angelina National Forest in East Texas and hosts a very special ecosystem that needs regular fires in order to thrive. Before the lumber boom in the early 19th century, longleaf pine forests covered nearly 3 million acres in East Texas. These trees are desirable as timber due to their high quality fiber, huge diameter, and tall, straight trunks that are good for poles. In addition to their importance to the timber industry, longleaf pine forests are one of the most biodiverse systems outside of the tropics. Today, less than 45,000 acres of this unique and diverse ecosystem remain in East Texas.
Healthy longleaf pine forests are characterized by a single species of tree (the longleaf pine), an open canopy, a lack of understory woody growth, and a diverse forest floor, dominated by forbs and grasses. Almost 900 plant species occur only in longleaf pine forests, and healthy longleaf pine stands, providing fantastic habitat for recreational hunting species like white-tailed deer, bobwhite quail, and wild turkeys. Longleaf pine forests also provide habitat for 29 threatened or endangered species, notably the Red-cockaded woodpecker, the eastern indigo snake, and the gopher tortoise. Healthy longleaf pine stands and well-managed, frequently-burned pine stands in general (like loblolly or slash) can also act to slow and lessen the intensity of wildfires, aiding fire fighters in their efforts to get them under control.
Prior to European settlement, frequent natural or human-generated fires maintained the open savanna-like qualities of longleaf pine forests. In the early 20th century, following stand-replacing high-intensity fires associated with logging and industrial activities, a policy of fire suppression was instituted throughout the country. Not only were high-intensity fires that threatened infrastructure contained, but low-intensity, forest-maintaining fires were not allowed to burn through what remained of the longleaf pine forests and other fire dependent ecosystems. Unfortunately, these practices of fire suppression led to increased wildfire risk and decreased biodiversity in many ecosystems, including longleaf pine. Without more frequent fires, woody growth can overtake the herbaceous understory and the habitat it provides. This can end up fueling higher-intensity wildfires. When TLC first acquired Catahoula Forest, the understory was choked with yaupon and other woody growth, allowing little light to reach the forest floor. Few grasses grew there, and it did not provide the appropriate habitat for the diversity of species found in a healthy longleaf pine forest.
Today, managers use frequent, low-intensity burns during the growing season as one of the most important tools to best maintain and improve longleaf pine forest health. In 2015, TLC signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Angelina National Forest to include Catahoula in their Upper Island Wilderness prescribed burns. Since then, Catahoula Forest has been burned two times with another fire planned for this year. We are excited that our partnership with the Angelina National Forest will allow us to observe how frequent, low-intensity fires on our preserve and the surrounding Upper Island Wilderness area encourage a healthy longleaf pine ecosystem.