Oconee National Forest Cutting 1,500 Acres Infested by Pine Beetles

Protecting the red-cockaded woodpecker is the reason, but deer, turkey, quail and other wildlife will benefit as well.

Game species have an ally when it comes to management of Oconee National Forest. The red-cockaded woodpecker is the reason about 1,500 acres of timber infested with southern pine beetle (SPB) will be cut over the next two years, creating early successional habitat beneficial to all types of wildlife — especially deer, turkey, small game and quail.

The cut — or salvage — is not part of the timber-management plan approved in 2004 under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which ended a 14-year-long cessation of timber harvest in the forest. It is an emergency measure to stop the spread of a SPB infestation, which threatens the habitat of the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered, federally protected species. The acreage is broken into numerous 1- to 20-acre beetle spots in two separate areas of the national forest, said Tim Walker, a supervisory forester at the national forest.

Roughly 320 acres in nine SPB cells have already been salvaged this summer in the 4,600-acre Hitchiti Experimental Forest on the southern end of the national forest in Jones County. The area is located within Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, and Tim said there are plans to cut additional acreage there before the focus turns to a second area north of Piedmont in Jasper County.

“It doesn’t sound like that much, but it’s a lot of different small areas,” Tim said.

The main purpose of the cuts is to protect nesting and foraging habitat of the woodpecker, which is dependent on mature timber. Thinning of trees is beneficial for the woodpecker, but clearing is not necessarily favorable for the species. However, the potential habitat damage an unchecked SPB infestation could cause outweighs the negative impact of the small salvage clearings.

The early successional growth following the cuts will be a boon for the rest of the area wildlife.

“It’s going to be a positive effect, especially for the deer — well everything — deer, turkey, quail, you name it. It’s positive because you get that young growth out there, the browse and the cover,” Tim said. “It’s a preferred environment for deer, and especially quail early, because you get those more open areas… that old-field effect for the first couple of years, and the quail will really thrive in there. I can see some coveys of quail really increasing — of course, the turkey too. It’s a positive effect for any wildlife, an absolutely positive effect.”

Tim said SPB infestations are a natural process that maintains a mix of open and forested areas. The drought has increased the rate at which SPB infestations spread because the trees are stressed and weak from a lack of water. The cutting preserves known woodpecker nesting areas and does not include cutting mast-bearing hardwoods. Salvaged areas will be replanted in loblolly and longleaf pine.

Currently, under the NEPA-approved land-management plan, the Forest Service is thinning timber in Oconee National Forest and conducting controlled burns on 20,000 acres a year. Tim said timber-management projects are increasing.

Hopefully these practices will help the game species in the national forest recover from the environmentalist-driven halt to timber harvest which ended in 2006 — also thanks to the woodpecker.

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