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Seeing the Forest & the Trees

Alabama is situated in the heart of the southeastern Gulf Coast and is occupied by many types of forests. If you frequent many of our public hunting lands (WMAs and SOAs), you can see them all. From the hardwood regions of the highland rim, ridge and valley, and the Cumberland plateau, to the more piney-woods regions of the piedmont and coastal plain, our properties run the gamut of forest composition and structure.

The northern-most properties that the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division (WFF) owns hold their own mystique. A high percentage of acres exhibit almost solid hardwood stands from property line to property line. However stately and unique they are, mature hardwood stands suffer many of the same problems as overstocked pine plantations when it comes to quality understory habitat. Capturing most of the sunlight in the solid, overarching tree canopy seventy plus feet overhead, excessive shading prevents quality, low level herbaceous vegetation (grasses and forbs) from growing. A wide range of both game and non-game species rely on this missing factor for food and nesting and escape cover. How many of you have ever jumped a deer or rabbit from the tangled canopy of a single fallen tree in the middle of the wide-open woods? They were in there because it was the only place that afforded them shelter.

In an effort to counteract the lack of ground-level habitat, WFF strategically selects specific hardwood stands for thinning treatments. Thinning parameters call for harvesting the smaller overtopped trees, a few of the older declining trees, and good numbers of the non-mast producing gums, poplars, and maples. What we target to retain is a healthy number of oak, hickory, and other tree species that at some point during the year provide food for wildlife. Simply put, punching some small holes in the canopy by taking out non-desirable trees allows sunlight to hit the ground. And when that happens, mother nature responds by providing the missing ground-level vegetation. The areas of disturbance and associated vegetative response can be more friendly to ground nesting gamebirds such as Bobwhite quail and turkey and nongame birds such as White-eyed vireos and Hooded warblers, while also providing other animals like white-tailed deer and Eastern cottontails more food and cover.

From the fall line southward, most of WFF properties are situated on the sandy, pine-growing soils of the coastal plain. Historic literature from early naturalist William Bartram documented vast plains of low tree density longleaf pine forests that were undoubtedly maintained by periodic lightning-strike initiated fires. These historical forests were teeming with native plants and wildlife and were very stable ecosystems. Current management of the upland coastal plain and piedmont forest stands are tailored to mimic these historic and natural processes – and one of the reasons why you see impressive smoke plumes over our properties at certain times of the year. Timber sales for young and middle-aged pine stands are designed to reduce tree densities, and the resulting open-canopied forests produce a tremendous amount of understory vegetation for wildlife habitat. Prescribed fire works in harmony with the thinning harvests and, when used at the right time and intensity, doesn’t harm the maturing pines and promotes and maintains herbaceous vegetation while discouraging the establishment of tree saplings and other woody vegetation.

Amateur and professional wildlife managers have known for a long time that wildlife (just like humans) need three essential things to survive - food, shelter, and water. When closed-canopied forests limit the essentials and carrying capacity suffers, it’s a logical approach to implement sound silvicultural prescriptions to correct these less-than-ideal situations. Enhancing forest habitats by strategic thinning harvests and wise use of prescribed fire can turn a simple, unmanaged stand of trees into a healthy forest ecosystem to be enjoyed by hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts.