Prior to the refuges establishment in 1939, the once vast longleaf pine forest of the Sandhills region had been almost entirely destroyed. By the early 1900s, the woodlands had been cut over and wildfires burned unchecked throughout the area. Farming had become the predominant lifestyle, but poor farming practices in the deep, sandy soils caused most farmers to fail. By the late 1920s, the soils in the area were badly eroded; the region was considered to be a biological desert with very little wildlife to be found.
After the federal government purchased this eroded land in the mid-to-late 30s, reforestation of the abandoned agricultural fields was begun along with several efforts to control wildfires in the area. A system of truck trails and firebreaks was established to provide protection and permit access for fire control to distant sites. An educational program to encourage fire prevention was also initiated.
Many of the wildlife species which had disappeared from the landscape were restocked on the refuge in the 1940s, including white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and beaver. Other native species returned to the area as the habitat was restored.
All timber management practices carried out on Carolina Sandhills Refuge serve to provide wildlife habitat to best meet the needs of native species. Special attention is given to the needs of endangered and threatened species. Maintaining a diversity of forest habitat types that mirror the historic and natural distribution of species is an important goal for our forest management program.
Forest management needs are planned and scheduled using management prescriptions which are prepared for each of the Refuges 20 timber compartments. These prescriptions describe the management techniques proposed along with an inventory and description of the forest and wildlife resources occurring within the area. The special needs of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker are provided for and included in these plans. Emphasis is placed on management techniques that maintain present and future foraging habitat for these birds.
Restoration of the unique longleaf pine ecosystem is a primary goal. The longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem, the characteristic habitat of Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge, once covered approximately 90 million acres in the Southeastern United States. This unique ecosystem, shaped by thousands of years of natural fires that burned through every two to four years, has been reduced to fewer than two million acres, representing a 97 percent decline in this important ecosystem. Today, only scattered patches of the longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem occur, primarily in the coastal plains of the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. About half of these surviving stands of longleaf pine exist on public lands.
Factors contributing to the demise of this ecosystem include fire suppression efforts, clearing for agriculture and development, aggressive logging at the turn of the last century, and conversion to other pine types for faster growth and profits. You can learn much more about the longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem on this site.
Carolina Sandhills Refuge serves as a demonstration site for land management practices which preserve and enhance the diminishing longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem to provide habitat for native species. Here are several of the practices used by staff at the Refuge in managing the longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem:
Improvement cuts or thinnings will be used in timber stands to:
- reduce competition between desirable tree species
- permit more light to reach the forest floor (encourages growth of low growing plants)
- encourage better crown development
- insure continued vitality of dominant, over-mature and larger trees
- permit better root development
- enhance conditions for the public to see and enjoy the wide variety of wildlife species present
Fire is an important management tool in managing the tracts of longleaf pine at Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge. Prescribed burning is conducted several times each year on different portions of the Refuge.This mimics the natural fires that historically burned through longleaf pine/wiregrass areas on a three to five-year interval. Those natural fires were of low intensity, fueled by grasses and pine litter. The prescribed fires used at Carolina Sandhills NWR suppress the growth of hardwood trees, creating an open park-like situation preferred by the red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) and many other animals and plants native to this ecosystem.
Natural reproduction or regeneration is the preferred method for new growth. When natural regeneration cannot be accomplished, artificial methods such as direct seeding or planting will be used.
Other Forest Management Practices
Another practice used by forest managers at Carolina Sandhills Refuge is roller chopping in red-cockaded woodpecker colony sites to remove encroaching scrub oaks. Roller chopping is especially beneficial in areas where prescribed fire does not control hardwoods because of light fuel loads in the area. This chopping helps to maintain the open stand condition required by red-cockaded woodpeckers.
Roller chopping is also used to cut strips through dense scruboaks in the pine-scruboak timber stands. The purpose of this activity is to increase the amount of edge, to improve browse conditions, and to promote better crown development in the remaining scruboaks which increases mast production.
On rare occasions, it becomes necessary to conduct unplanned, salvage timber sales to prevent the spread of diseases and/or insect infestations. These problems generally occur after a natural event such as tornadoes, windstorms, ice storms, or rarely hurricanes. Prompt action is usually required to prevent the spread of these problems into unaffected areas.