EDGEFIELD, S.C. — Each year, conservation-minded Americans celebrate National Arbor Day by joining forces on the last Friday in April to plant an estimated 18 million tree seedlings.
However, to improve wildlife habitat and the environment, tree-planting efforts must span much further than Arbor Day celebrations. Through the National Wild Turkey Federation’s initiatives, private landowners and volunteers work year-round to rejuvenate forests by managing habitat and planting trees.
“The NWTF recognized the need for regional programs that would plant food-bearing shrubs and trees for wildlife, and decided to take action, ” said Dr. James Earl Kennamer, the NWTF’s senior vice president for conservation programs. “Through Operation Appleseed in the Northeast, Operation SOS (Set Out Seedlings) in Midwestern states and Ontario, Operation Big Sky in the northern Great Plains and Operation Heartland in the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio River valleys, plus initiatives to plant longleaf pines, American chestnuts and oak, the NWTF is meeting the need in big ways.”
Though the longleaf pine covered more than 90 million acres of America’s landscape at the time of European colonization, today, longleaf pine forests have been reduced to only 3 million acres nationwide due to pasture and cropland conversion, landowners planting other pine species for timber and the absence of fire, on which longleaf is dependant.
Longleaf pine forests are an important and diverse habitat that is home to 26 federally listed endangered species such as the indigo snake, red-cockaded woodpecker and gopher tortoise. Longleaf pine can be grown in landscapes that are poor, sandy and well-drained, and are often more suitable for these sites than other species.
In 2007, the NWTF celebrated Arbor Day by restoring oak savanna habitat in California and Oregon, and this year for Arbor Day, the NWTF is spreading the news about longleaf pine trees and their value to both landowners and wildlife.
To restore the South’s most famous and unique ecosystem – longleaf pine – The NWTF and Georgia Pacific have partnered to restore more than 8,500 acres of longleaf pines on both public and private land in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi through a $1.1 million grant from Southern Company and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
“The value of longleaf pines for both wildlife and timber production is tremendous,” Kennamer said. “It’s a valuable addition to property managed for multiple uses, and would be an excellent tree to plant in your front yard on suitable sites on Arbor Day.”
Project partners also are hosting landowner field days to teach the benefits of planting and managing longleaf pine such as high timber value and quality wildlife habitat. Longleaf pine forests allow prescribed fire to be introduced earlier and more often than other species of pine trees, which reduces the chance for wildfires and maintains grasses and other wildlife friendly plants. Another advantage is that numerous federal and state programs supplement the costs associated with planting and managing longleaf pines.
“With programs designed to help landowners, planting longleaf pine trees is a win-win situation for conservation, hunters, landowners and wildlife,” Kennamer said.
Few trees are missed by wildlife more than the American chestnut, which once flourished from Georgia to Maine, but was virtually eliminated by a fungal disease called blight. Because chestnuts were an important food source for deer, wild turkeys and other wildlife, as well as a source of food and lumber for nineteenth century settlers, blight is a serious problem.
“Blight destroyed a beautiful tree, and a major food source for wild turkeys,” said Robert Abernethy, the NWTF’s director of agency programs. “Its reintroduction would benefit everyone, especially wild turkeys.”
Until recently, restoration of the American chestnut was an unlikely dream. However, The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), with help from organizations such as the NWTF, is breeding American chestnut trees with Chinese chestnut trees using a method called backcrossing to create a chestnut tree that is blight-resistant and able to reclaim its place in American forests. The new tree will be more than 94 percent American chestnut in appearance and form with blight resistance as the only remaining trait of the Chinese chestnut.
“The restoration of the American chestnut tree is a long-term project,” Abernethy said. “It will take many years to develop enough genetic lines to begin restoring chestnuts across the Eastern half of the country.”
The NWTF signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the TACF in 2006 to work together for the benefit of American chestnut trees and wild turkeys by planting blight-resistant trees in orchards to provide a future source of American chestnut trees. The MOU is a continuance of the support that the NWTF has given TACF in the past.
“This partnership continues to benefit wild turkeys and their habitat, along with everyone who believes in the conservation of the wild turkey and the preservation of our hunting tradition,” said Kennamer.
Oak trees provide food and shelter for many animals, but residential development, changing land uses and fire suppression has been detrimental to Southeastern hardwood stands.
“A lack of food-producing trees such as oak can have devastating effects on wildlife,” said Greg Boozer, the NWTF’s Operation Oak coordinator. “The NWTF formed the Operation Oak program to restore the oak component, which is very valuable to wildlife throughout the Southeast.
Created in 2000, Operation Oak distributes oak seedlings to NWTF chapters whose volunteers plant the seedlings on private and public properties to enhance wildlife habitat. This year, the NWTF distributed more than 65,000 seedlings to over 300 NWTF chapters and landowners.
“To date, we’ve helped plant more than 400,000 oak seedlings and improved more than 640,000 acres of wild turkey habitat across the southeast,” Boozer said. “We thank our partners, our sponsors and especially our volunteers for all of their hard work and support. Together, we’re leaving a positive, long-term impact on wildlife for generations to come.”