In 1956, we purchased our first southeastern timberlands in Mississippi and Alabama. Today, we own approximately 7.3 million acres of timberlands located across 12 southern states. These timberlands grow on a variety of landforms, from the productive, organic soils of eastern North Carolina to the shallower, rocky soils of the Ouachita Mountains in Oklahoma and Arkansas. The diverse landscapes range from low and broad flatwoods, hills and bottoms, to steep hillsides and mountains. These varied conditions create unique challenges and opportunities for growing trees.
We use decades of research to maximize timber growth while conserving important environmental attributes of these ecosystems. Across our southern ownership, we work to maintain diverse wildlife habitat conditions, providing home for game and non-game species, including a number of federally and state-protected species and species of concern. We protect water quality in a variety of stream conditions, from small intermittent streams to large rivers and, in some cases, conservation easements. Much of our ownership is in large, contiguous blocks, which provides important wildlife habitat and water quality protection in an increasingly fragmented landscape.
The forests in southeastern U.S. were primarily forested when Europeans first arrived. At the time, these forests and the wildlife living within were viewed as inexhaustible resources. Many of these lands were harvested and converted into agricultural uses. In the 1940s, based on an emerging conservation ethic, many forests began to be reforested. The advent of active forest management in the 1950s created an economic incentive to retain those forests. Much of the land we own in the southeastern U.S. was formerly agricultural land that has been reforested. The forests of this region benefit from long growing seasons and a mild climate, making them highly productive.
We practice intensive forestry on most of our ownership in this region to maximize growth and value, while protecting environmental quality and conserving water, soil, and wildlife resources. Even-aged managed pine stands are generally harvested between 25 and 35 years of age, followed by a variety of site-preparation methods to ensure successful regeneration of each harvest site.
After site-preparation efforts, which include both mechanical and chemical methods, pine seedlings are planted in rows by hand or machine. Once the planted trees are between 10 and 15 years old, the stands are thinned to reduce competition among the remaining trees, which continue to grow into quality sawtimber. Along streams and in other locations with unique ecological values, some trees are never harvested or are selectively harvested so as to not compromise their environmental value.
Over many decades, our research programs have documented numerous "species of conservation interest" using our southern timberlands. These range from bird species that rely on young forests, such as prairie warblers, to aquatic-dependent species such as spotted turtles, to species that require a variety of habitat types, such as bats. Of most concern are those species listed as threatened or endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Across our southern ownership, we provide habitat for a number of these species, including the Red Hills salamander in Alabama; the gopher tortoise in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana; the red wolf in North Carolina; and the recently delisted bald eagle. In some cases, these species are protected by official agreements with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and/or other agencies.
In North Carolina, we protect 5,650 acres of our land across eight counties that contain remnants of the original, old-growth Atlantic coast forest — an extremely rare forest type in today’s modern landscape. The North Carolina Coastal Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy received grants to secure easements that will prevent future development on these lands. We donated easements and are conserving some land through the North Carolina natural heritage registry, including our Cool Springs Environmental Education Center, which hosts more than 2,500 students each year.
RESEARCH AND PARTNERSHIPS
To sustainably manage our forests, it's important that we continue to learn about how our activities affect both the forest ecosystem and surrounding communities. We frequently partner with other organizations to ensure that our practices are consistent with the best available science.
One example is our work with The Nature Conservancy in the Old Cove area in MIssissippi. Since the 1970s, we've worked with a number of environmental groups in the South, and in this case, we helped The Nature Conservancy achieve its goal to find, protect, and maintain the best examples of natural communities, ecosystems and endangered species in the state.
The 350-acre Old Cove area is located in a 12,000-acre forested landscape that includes the headwaters of three rivers, the ecologically unique Shelton Mountain, Old Cove, and Magnolia Cove, and at least 12 rare invertebrate species. The Old Cove area is inside a large working forest used to produce timber for lumber and other forest products. Several rare plant species have been documented there, including Maple Leaf Viburnum, Star Vine, and Yellow Lady’s Slippers. A cooperative study by The Nature Conservancy, Mississippi State University, the Mississippi Natural Heritage Program, and Weyerhaeuser was recently completed and the results will soon be available. The study will document the biodiversity value of the Old Cove landscape, including plantation stands, riparian areas, and ecologically unique areas.