A special place exists along the banks of the Flint River in middle Georgia. Sprewell Bluff, a 6,495-acre wildlife management area, is home to several unique plant and animal communities, including old-growth stands of longleaf pine.
During the 1970s, a water reclamation project proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would have dammed the Flint and flooded the river valley. Recognizing the importance of a free-flowing river, then-Gov. Jimmy Carter blocked the proposal for building a dam, sparing Sprewell Bluff and many of its rare ecosystems and wildlife species.
Now Georgia DNR is trying to bring back another rare animal.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers are an endangered species and the only woodpecker in North America that excavates nest and roost cavities in living trees, a process that can take years. Once common throughout southeastern longleaf ecosystems, red-cockaded woodpecker populations have declined drastically due to logging, farming and development.
Longleaf pine is the species’ preferred cavity tree, and DNR is working to restore foraging and nesting habitat at Sprewell Bluff, where the woodpeckers have not been seen for decades.
A recent partnership has made reaching that goal more possible.
When DNR acquired 4,000 acres that join Sprewell Bluff west of the Flint a few years ago, the purchase came with a timber lease that ran through 2022. CatchMark Timber Trust Inc., a real estate investment trust traded on the New York Stock Exchange, bought the lease and began logging operations in 2018. Yet thanks to conservation efforts by both parties, a plan was developed to ensure that while CatchMark pursued a profit, progress was made toward restoring red-cockaded woodpeckers. CatchMark agreed to log the acreage with DNR’s input and guidance, helping meet conservation goals.
For example, instead of clearcutting much of the timber, CatchMark is thinning stands to leave trees and habitat suitable for red-cockaded woodpeckers and other wildlife. This approach will help produce sustainable foraging habitats for the birds in as few as 5 to 10 years. The areas that have been clearcut, mainly loblolly pine stands, will be replanted in longleaf pine using grant funding from the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Program.
It’s all about responsible stewardship.
The work syncs with CatchMark’s commitment as a partner in DNR’s Forestry for Wildlife Partnership. The program promotes conservation of wildlife and habitats on large private forestlands, and public access to those properties for hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, hiking and camping.
CatchMark Chief Resources Officer Todd Reitz said that CatchMark’s partnership with DNR “fits with our overall priority to ensure durable harvests and the long-term health of our timberland environments through sustainable forest management practices.”
“Working collaboratively with DNR to conserve special areas for threatened and endangered species like the red-cockaded woodpecker has been an exceptional example of conservation without conflict,” Reitz said. “As a result, we have been able to achieve our goals and objectives as an active timberland owner and manager, while improving conditions for wildlife and promoting conservation.”
CatchMark Timber Trust, Weyerhaeuser, and Georgia Power were recently recognized by Gov. Brian Kemp and DNR as 2020 partners in the Forestry for Wildlife Partnership. The companies’ stewardship and land management practices improved wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities on more than 1 million acres combined.
The plan doesn’t stop with longleaf.
At Sprewell Bluff, making improvements for wildlife also involves hardwood trees. Although these trees are an important part of the ecosystem, fire has been suppressed in Sprewell Bluff’s forests the last few decades, resulting in too many hardwoods. By thinning them to enhance more open habitat, while also conserving bottomland hardwood areas, CatchMark is helping restore the balance with longleaf.
This change emphasizes how vital fire is to maintaining healthy, fire-adapted ecosystems such as longleaf pine habitats. A cornerstone of DNR’s management plan for Sprewell Bluff, prescribed fire is a safe way to apply a natural process, ensure ecosystem health, improve wildlife habitat and reduce wildfire risk. Without regular fire, hardwoods can crowd out native groundcover and hinder longleaf regeneration, both of which would undercut the restoration of red-cockaded woodpeckers.
DNR senior biologist Nathan Klaus has been working at Sprewell Bluff for about 15 years. Standing in a recently thinned loblolly pine plantation last November, Klaus explained that the trees around him “would normally have all been clearcut, but in this particular area DNR needed these trees to have any hope of recovering red-cockaded woodpeckers on this property.”
It’s a careful balance.
“DNR and CatchMark found a way to leave the right amount of timber on this site for endangered woodpeckers while still allowing CatchMark to harvest what it needed to get a return on their investment,” he said. “Having an open dialogue between CatchMark and DNR is what allowed this to happen and that boils down to the relationships between individuals; the right biologists and the right foresters understanding and listening to each other, agreeing to find solutions that meet each other’s objectives.”
Klaus also noted not only the skill but the care it took for loggers to remove some trees while leaving old-growth longleaf without a scratch.
By finding common ground, the partnership between DNR and CatchMark is proving a success for conservation and endangered species, especially red-cockaded woodpeckers, birds that will hopefully thrive at Sprewell Bluff once again.
Written by Beth Quillian who works with Public Affairs in DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division.