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May 17, 2012
Author visits S.C. heritage preserves as he writes book on Southeastern grasslands
Conservationist and author Reed Noss of the University of Central Florida recently visited several of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' heritage preserves and wildlife management areas to gather information for his book on grasslands of the Southeastern United States.
Noss, an internationally acclaimed conservation biologist, is travelling throughout the region, and is especially interested in South Carolina's piedmont prairies and longleaf pine savannas.
The book title is "Forgotten Grasslands of the South: Natural History and Conservation." It is scheduled for release by Island Press in Fall 2012. The foreword to the book is by noted ecologist Edward O. Wilson.
Noss visited Rock Hill Blackjacks Heritage Preserve and Wildlife Management area to see what was once an open landscape vegetated in plants more typical of the tallgrass prairies of the Midwest than of the Carolinas.
Johnny Stowe, S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) heritage preserve manager, showed Noss around the preserves and said Carolina's piedmont prairies once teemed with elk and buffalo.
"It appears that these large grazers, in combination with frequent fires, kept trees out of these extensive grasslands," Stowe said, Only vestiges of these ecosystems remain, but the DNR and others, including counterparts in North Carolina, are restoring them with prescribed fire and other management techniques.
Stowe said that along with fire suppression, invasive exotic plant species and urban sprawl are the biggest threats to piedmont prairies. "How to control non-native plants like interstate lespedeza, privet, and Eleagnus without in the process harming the desirable plants—that is a major challenge," Stowe said.
Stowe also showed Noss his favorite preserves, both longleaf pine savannas in Lee County: Longleaf Pine and Savanna heritage preserves.
"It has been a learning experience for me to restore these tracts," Stowe said. "When we first got them they were overgrown with hardwoods that shaded out the special sun-loving plants, but with the help of the S.C. Forestry Commission, we have killed the red maple, sweetgum and other trees back, and the herbaceous plants have rebounded." Stowe said that he could not have restored these preserves without the help of the S. C. Forestry Commission's Mike Bozzo, Benson Atkinson, English Cooper and Whit Player.
Author Noss was impressed with the restoration efforts. "I was particularly interested to see how Johnny had used prescribed fire to remove the limbs on the lower portions of longleaf pine trunks, a technique he calls 'thermal pruning,'" Noss said. "Due to past fire exclusion, lower limbs were artificially dense. Removing them with fire allows more sunlight to reach the ground cover, where the greatest diversity of plants resides."
Stowe praised fire as the main factor in restoring the preserves longleaf pine grasslands. "We speak of longleaf pine forests, but actually most of the best longleaf ecosystems are just as much or more longleaf pine grasslands than they are forests. One of the many attributes of longleaf pine landscapes is that landowners can grow valuable timber with fewer trees per acre. These lower tree densities foster sun-loving grasses, legumes and other low-growing herbaceous plants that are not only special themselves, but also provide crucial habitat for fox squirrels and grassland birds such as the bobwhite quail."
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