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The Natural Georgia Series: The Fire Forest

Longleaf Pine-Wiregrass Ecosystem

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Leon Neel stands by a centuries-old longleaf pine on Greenwood Plantation. Where he's been a consulting forester and wildlife manager for over 50 years. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.comThe Fire Prophet: Leon Neel's Forest Management Plan Leaves Something for Future Generations

by Elizabeth W. Crofton

Julie and Leon Neel notice things most people don't. It's probably not a matter of superior eyesight, since both are past 70 and wear eyeglasses as often as not. Rather, the Neels appreciate details without losing sight of the big picture: Literally and metaphorically, they see both the forest and the trees. A walk in a longleaf pine forest elicits a running discourse on southwest Georgia's natural and cultural history, a fascinating overview peppered with exclamations over a rare wildflower, a red- cockaded woodpecker's call, a shape that materializes into a deer when Leon or Julie guides one's eye to the site. Even a short car ride around town turns up unexpected natural wonders, leaving the less observant visitor slightly awestruck at these truths that, if not obvious, were there all along.

Their total appreciation for the land dovetails with Leon's work as a forestry consultant and wildlife manager: To him the forest embodies ecological, recreational, economic, and aesthetic value. Spend an hour or so in the woods with him and complex natural interactions come clear; you begin to see the forest as the multi-faceted resource it is. Neel's forest management plan, known as the Stoddard-Neel method, is a detailed yet common-sense set of principles even a layperson can understand, and it packs the potential to save a lot of remaining longleaf pine habitat.

Leon Neel and his wife Julie built a house in the Red Hills over 30 years ago. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.comAn Appreciation for Old Growth

"Leon and Julie both, after you've been with them about 30 minutes, you feel like you've known them all your life," says botanist Angus Gholson, a Beadel Fellow at Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee and research associate at the University of Florida's Museum of Natural History. Gholson has been acquainted with the Neels for almost 40 years. "They speak with such certainty about the land of the Red Hills you can't help but believe what they say. They live on it, and they spend a lot of time standing up for what they believe in.

"In all sincerity, I feel like the most pleasant part of my life is being with Leon and Julie, and getting out in the Big Woods."

The Big Woods is a pristine, old-growth section of longleaf pine at Greenwood Plantation, a 1,000-acre forest and quail-hunting reserve where Leon has been a consulting forester and wildlife manager for over 50 years. The impetus for Gholson's and the Neels' enthusiasm over this forest and other old-growth forests is obvious: It's the land itself. Bunch grasses, wildflowers, legumes, blueberries, and bog plants of occasional wetland features color a forest floor dotted by massive, centuries-old longleaf pines. Standing on a slight natural ridge in the forest, one can see for great distances in all directions, privy to open vistas unsullied by the thick, tangled understory characteristic of many hardwood forests. There is not much shade in the Big Woods, which in appearance is representative of the mere handful of old-growth forests remaining in the Southeast. Here pines are widely and irregularly spaced, looming over hardwoods native to this ecosystem. Stunted by fire and a need to devote energy to a strong root system instead of aboveground growth, these hardwoods rarely reach heights of 4 or 5 feet, and even then only after years of fire exclusion.

This forest represents a marked departure from pine plantations, where young slash and loblolly pines march along in dense, often bedded-up rows that prevent much sunlight from filtering through packed branches. There's not much plant life under the trees that requires open sun anyhow, since the mowing and chemical treatments used on pine plantations has eradicated most natural ground cover. Bunch grasses like wiregrass (the principal ground cover in undisturbed longleaf pine forests) are exceedingly difficult to re-establish after eradication and are therefore absent on most planted tracts. Pine plantations can't support healthy ecosystems of diverse flora and fauna. Pure and simple, these tracts are giant, artificial terrariums of mechanically planted and fertilized timber stock, bearing little or no resemblance to well-stocked, natural longleaf pine forests. The beauty of the Big Woods is only enhanced by its lack of perfection in a manufactured sense; the order of the natural world takes precedence here.

Over time and with frequent visits, Greenwood's topography seems to have etched itself into Neel's psyche, becoming, in effect, part of his identity. He knows every curve in the unpaved wagon trail that meanders through the property and appears to remember individual trees as we walk. His easy familiarity and respect for the Big Woods is renewed with each enunciated memory and discovery-a relationship reminiscent of the affection between Leon and Julie and a marriage that has been enriched by time.

If a single person could be anointed as having done more than anyone else for the conservation of old-growth longleaf pine forests, that person would be Leon Neel. He's devoted himself professionally and personally to the cause, and his stewardship is evidenced in the beauty stretched out before us in Greenwood's Big Woods and in the old-growth components of other properties Leon manages, including Melrose, Sedgefield, Millpond, Avalon, and Elsoma plantations.

Habitually energetic to begin with, Neel's blue eyes snap and his gravelly voice quickens a bit in the Big Woods, as if the nineteenth-century belief in the regenerative powers of piney woods air were true and he could draw strength from the landscape. Bent, dusty work boots, a frayed cap, and hands weathered by time and the elements contribute to a portrait of a man who, while obviously in possession of a profound ecological knowledge corroborated in countless scientific books and journals, is no stranger to an honest day's work. He loves this land because he knows it, and vice-versa. Neel grew up here, and he has no intention of ever leaving.

Left photo: Neel and lumber company owner N.F. Keadle on the Wade Tract in 1963.  Right: Neel and Beau Turner at Greenwood Plantation.. Right photo by Julie Neel.

Apprentice to the Master

Julie and Leon are true outdoorspeople, more comfortable in the woods than in easy chairs. Julie grew up on a dairy farm in Americus, Georgia. Leon's ties to the area predate the Civil War, when his great-grandfather purchased acreage in Thomas County and named it "The Old Place." The couple met at the University of Georgia, where Leon received a degree in forestry with a minor in wildlife management. They married in 1948 and settled in the Red Hills of southwest Georgia shortly thereafter. The Old Place, now a privately owned tract called Sedgefield Plantation, is one of several properties Leon cares for as consulting forester and wildlife manager

The Neels' home is crafted from hand-hewn bricks and native woods-cypress, persimmon, curly pine, heart pine-salvaged from old houses slated for demolition around Thomasville in the 1950s and '60s. They raised two daughters here; now four lively grandchildren, ranging in age from 6 to 15, have replaced the grown daughters at the swinging tree and in the yard during family gatherings. The house is surrounded by butterfly gardens of flowering native plants, homage to the winged insects that are one of Julie's passions. A respected expert on the subject, she gives programs at schools and garden clubs and was asked to select the official state butterflies for both Georgia and Florida (Eastern tiger swallowtail and zebra longwing, respectively).

The heart of the house is an enormous picture window that functions as a bird-watcher's equivalent of a big-screen television. The two begin and end their day in front of the window, observing and recording the birds that stop by (135 species at last count). Neel maintains it was this avian avocation that got him a job with his mentor Herbert Stoddard, whose interests included a love for ornithology.

Stoddard was a self-taught ecologist, forester, and Northern bobwhite quail expert whose 1931 book The Bobwhite Quail: Its Habits, Preservation, and Increase helped popularize the term "wildlife management." The book expounded upon Stoddard's belief that any species must have the proper habitat to survive and with appropriate regulation will produce a virtually guaranteed annual yield. He believed that a healthy forest is a productive one-economically and ecologically-and asserted that consistent, controlled burns were a means to that productivity. He started a forestry consulting business in the Thomasville area in 1941, taking charge of lands where longleaf pines grew, and he hired Neel in 1950. Stoddard and Neel formed a professional partnership, the elder partner passing on his knowledge of marking trees and conducting burns before retiring. Stoddard died in 1970.

Because his land ethic promoted sustainable forestry, fire, and the importance of maintaining a property's conservation value, Stoddard's management practices were a departure from the norm. But he gained a following in the 1940s, Neel says, among landowners who wanted to contribute timber to the war effort without destroying the aesthetics and the value of their land. Stoddard's method of selective cutting, using a variety of factors to determine which trees to take down while never exceeding a certain percentage of the total, guaranteed owners a perpetual source of income long after World War II ended.

"He was devising a system of forest management where he only took a portion of the growth, and made sure he left as much growth as possible, so those people would be guaranteed income from timber," Neel explains.

He pauses, and with a wistful chuckle, relates how some mills of the era duped people into cutting more than the land could replace in their lifetimes. "There isn't a sawmill man alive that's going to cut trees to represent the landowner. Someone needed to represent the resource and the owner." That's the niche Stoddard and Neel filled.

His story illustrates two points about Neel: one, he's not opposed to selling trees for timber; and two, he knows how to cut without sacrificing the whole forest. Known as single-tree selection or uneven-aged management, his system hinges on time (he calls the passage of time "an ecological process"), conservative cutting, the use of fire, and allowing for natural mortality. Specific factors such as a tree's age (old-growth trees should be retained); its species (preference should be given to keeping longleafs in mixed-pine stands); its defects (defective trees should be cut first, but not to the extent that the defect is eliminated altogether); and its crown size (trees with sparser crowns should be removed before those with large crowns) are considered before cutting. Perhaps most importantly, Neel emphasizes biodiversity over an immediate monetary payoff. "The trees that are left are more important than the trees that are cut," he explains.

In the style of social activists who claim ownership of derogatory names to take away their sting, Neel spins a term other foresters might find insulting. "I'm probably the ultimate tree hugger, because I'm going to guarantee a forest to be there in the future," he asserts. "But I'll also cut individual trees down. They have a life-span, just like people do. A multi-age system of is going to guarantee trees for the future, as long as that system is operated without interruption over time.

"I've cut 400 million board feet of timber off of these Red Hills in my life," he adds. "But I'm a tree hugger."

The Neels begin and end each day  at their bird-watching window. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.comManaging the Total Forest

Wilson Baker, a private biological consultant and former colleague of Neel's at Tall Timbers where Baker was a Beadel Fellow, calls longleaf "one of the great timber trees of the world, for its growth characteristics and uses." The trees were historically sought for timber and turpentine; hundreds of thousands of stems were also cut in the nineteenth century to make room for agriculture and livestock grazing. Basic economics suggest that as supply has diminished, the commodity's value has increased. From a naturalist's point of view, so has the value of the remaining fragments of this once plentiful ecosystem.

The management and evolution of the longleaf pine ecosystem has affected all other habitats of the Coastal Plain, Baker says, and its decline has a domino effect on adjacent ecosystems. Unfortunately, some folks still see longleaf pines as a cash crop. A single old-growth longleaf pine tree can be worth up to $1,500, Neel says.

"Leon is still sort of a maverick to people who want short-term economics," says Baker. "All forestry discussions boil down to economics, perceived or real, so it doesn't really matter which if that's what people are thinking. Luckily, Leon hasn't been swayed by wanting money, particularly in the Red Hills area where we have some of the best examples of longleaf pine forest. He's put good forestry before making money. He could have a million-dollar house and yacht if he wanted to. But he looks at the total forest instead of just mainly the economics. Those of us who care about the diversity can really see it in the forests he manages."

A young man with no formal forestry training recently assisted Baker on a plant-cataloging project. After a short time in the field, Baker says, his assistant began to comment that tracts Neel managed looked different from other areas. "It got to be kind of a game," Baker recalls. "We'd be driving around and he would notice that a forest looked healthy, and all the diversity in the ground cover and he'd say, 'This looks like a place Mr. Neel manages.' I thought that was pretty telling."

Jimmy Atkinson, natural resources manager at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Center at Ichauway, says Neel lives and breathes his work, sometimes to the extent that he has to disagree with a client. "Through his integrity and care for the land and wildlife, he's chosen to put the resource first. I don't even know how you begin to explain the ethics behind what he's done. In some cases he's had to tell a landowner 'I won't do that-that's too much timber to cut off your land.' It's a rare thing to find somebody like that."

Angus Gholson quotes renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold in supporting the soundness of the holistic Stoddard-Neel ethic. "Aldo Leopold had a saying that a thing is good if it preserves the integrity, stability, and the beauty of the biotic community. If it does otherwise, it's bad.

"This type of ecological forestry is a blend of aesthetics, wildlife management, and the raising of a timber crop, and they all work to preserve the biotic community. That's a mouthful, but they're all decent, easy-to-understand philosophies. You can't cut more than you're growing. If you do, it's just like taking more out of the barrel than you're putting in. Pretty soon that barrel's going to be empty, and that's disastrous."

Neel credits private landowners in south Georgia and north Florida with giving him access to some of the finest remaining stands of longleaf pine forest in this country. He is able to put his ecological management philosophy into action; in exchange, he primes the land to provide dividends to the owners, in whatever form they wish.

Some of the land is used for hunting. To keep game populations up, Leon says, he's got to keep the ecosystem intact. Birds and other animals won't stay if the ground cover has been mowed down, and planting rows of slash pines on clear-cut land doesn't re-create a forest.

"Our philosophy has been, number one, to perpetuate the ecosystem or the best mimic we can of that, and then to concentrate on whatever aspect of life you want to pursue," he says. "If you want quail, then you can introduce natural procedures that will increase the quail population, but not to the detriment of the total ecosystem. The same is true of growing timber. You can grow timber, and if you grow it wisely, still perpetuate good quail hunting and certainly perpetuate the ecosystem. And that's true of anything-bird-watching, recreation, aesthetics. They can all co-exist with cutting timber.

Neel describes the workings of a healthy  longleaf pine ecosystem. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.com"I don't believe that you can take the total 90 million acres, or wherever the longleaf originally occurred, and put a fence around it and keep people out and have a natural forest as it was prior to the intrusion of European man.

"I believe in managing the forest-in fact you've got to manage the forest today; it's impossible to produce what you want to produce without managing it. But our management is a soft style. We keep everything not as nature had it in balance, but in balance to the best ability that we have. And we're constantly adjusting to keep things in balance."

Burning Breeds Regeneration

Fire is a key ingredient in keeping things balanced in the longleaf pine ecosystem, which requires periodic burning for its perpetuation. Through much of the twentieth century, natural fires were suppressed; Smokey Bear told people all fire was bad, and most foresters misunderstood its value. Today, prescribed burns are necessary to remove hardwoods that shade out other vegetation in the longleaf forest; prevent excessive plant debris from accumulating and fueling uncontrollable fires; enrich the soil for longleaf germination; and clear out ground cover that chokes out the legumes, herbs, and grasses wildlife need for food and cover. Flora and fauna of the longleaf pine ecosystem are uniquely adapted to, and in many cases dependent upon, periodic fires. The vast number of species in this ecosystem declines with fire exclusion.

"Mr. Stoddard did a very important thing down here in reintroducing fire," Gholson says. "It hasn't been too long past that the foresters did whatever they wanted to do and no one got in their way, and that included refusing to burn. We sacrificed a lot of wildflowers and small animals, because they can't live in an environment with so much shade. You reduce the food for flowers, birds, and small animals, and you eliminate them.

"The key is to have someone who knows the land. Leon's not only at home here, he's one of our foremost experts. He does a lot in the Red Hills area advising people, because he knows what they have."

Neel's approach to bogs that naturally occur in longleaf pine forests attests to his thorough knowledge of fire ecology. These wetlands, which appear when groundwater seeps through underlying clay deposits, and adjacent ecotones-transition zones between wetland features and grassy savannas-are important sources of biodiversity and habitat variation. They host some of the most diverse plant communities on the planet, and they contribute directly to water quality and quantity in other portions of the Coastal Plain. All wildlife in the forest use and pass through these wetland features, Neel says, particularly reptiles and amphibians. The flatwoods salamander, for example, requires an area of intermittent moisture for spawning (and has become endangered as its habitat has declined due to agricultural practices and drainage). Though pines don't grow in the boggy areas, says Neel, rare wildflowers and carnivorous plants do, and they're a vital part of the ecosystem. Contrary to general public opinion, bogs must be burned to be kept open and perpetuated, and they have to remain connected to other healthy zones. Bogs and ecotones would be some of the first features to go in a commercial timber operation, he says.

"Especially when you site-prep (for planted pines)-if you came in and cut all the timber, and then you put a chemical treatment on to kill everything and bedded it up to plant pines, well then you'd destroy this. You'd absolutely destroy it, and this is a unique area," Neel says emphatically, sweeping his hand over an acre or so of the Big Woods where the endangered hummingbird plant (Micranthera flammea) and insectivorous species like pitcher plants (Saracenia minor) and sundews (Drosera capillaris) grow in abundance.

"What difference does it make if this 1 acre here doesn't have any trees on it? Because you've got more trees than you need over there if you were money-hungry," he says, pointing up the hill.

Conserving What Currently Exists

No commercial cutting has occurred in the Big Woods since the 1940s, Neel says, and even then it was a light cut supervised by Stoddard. In 1985, Greenwood Plantation's management team cut over 300,000 board feet of timber in the area, all from trees already felled by Hurricane Kate. Downed trees, important sources of food for microorganisms and rich organic matter, are usually left on the ground, but they were so abundant after the hurricane Neel knew some could be sold without damaging the forest's balance. In its current state of equilibrium (which Julie says resembles "a green cathedral"), Greenwood shouldn't be disturbed or over-groomed.

"The difference in philosophy between our system and the systems that feature commercial forestry is that commercial forestry today gives you the highest rate of return in the shortest length of time, but it excludes everything else in the ecosystem," Neel says.

George Patterson, a representative of the New York-based Greentree Foundation that manages Greenwood Plantation for the Whitney family, expresses satisfaction with the health and productivity of the 1,000 acres under Neel's advisement. Patterson visits Greenwood regularly and talks daily with Gary Palmer, the plantation land manager. He believes it's ecologically important that the land has been continuously managed under the Stoddard-Neel method for over 50 years.

Stoddard became consulting forester at Greenwood Plantation in the 1940s, working alongside managers Roy and Ed Komarek. Neel joined them a decade later, and in 1958 he and Roy assisted Stoddard and Ed in establishing the nonprofit Tall Timbers Research Station (where Neel was the first staff forester). As the others neared retirement, Neel took up not only the responsibility for Greenwood's wildlife and forest management, but also decades of detailed cutting records and an accurate inventory of the timber. He has maintained similarly detailed records, noting that timber value on Greenwood has increased by approximately 27 percent annually over the last five decades.

"Leon is an unusual resource, in that he has a long history with Greenwood and the Whitney family that goes back to Stoddard and the Komareks," Patterson says. "To have him still part of the process represents an extraordinary continuity for the land."

Neel believes the Greentree Foundation deserves credit for its conservation efforts; it is in the process of negotiating a contract that will cede ownership of Greenwood Plantation to an environmentally conscious, nonprofit organization, probably The Nature Conservancy of Georgia.

He emphatically praises another client, media magnate Ted Turner, owner of Avalon Plantation in Jefferson County, Florida as a "true conservationist." Over the 15 years he has acted as an advisor at Avalon, Neel says he's watched Turner's commitment to environmental preservation steadily increase.

Beau Turner, fish and wildlife manager for over 1.5 million acres of Turner lands, says his family's desire to preserve native habitats grew out of a fondness for hunting and fishing. "We had always been involved in game management, and out of that we built a love for protecting nongame and native species," Turner says.

The Turner family established the Turner Endangered Species Fund in 1997, a private, nonprofit organization that works to ensure biodiversity by protecting or reintroducing endangered species on Turner lands. In 1998, under the direction of biologist Greg Hagan, the organization began relocating red-cockaded woodpeckers (Picoides borealis) to Avalon from the Apalachicola National Forest. The process represented the first attempt in history to reintroduce the woodpeckers to an area where none currently existed. Sixteen birds had been successfully relocated by the end of 1999, an example Turner says other private landowners in south Georgia and north Florida have begun to follow.

"That's a true commitment to the longleaf pine ecosystem," Neel says. "There haven't been [red-cockaded] woodpeckers on that land for maybe 200 years. Most people wouldn't try it. Most people are trying to get rid of their woodpeckers."

Neel and Jerry McCollum, president of Georgia Wildlife Federation,  in an old-growth forest. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.comFighting on Several Fronts

In addition to his work with individual landowners, Neel sits on the five-member Scientific Advisory Committee at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichauway, a 29,000-acre research center and outdoor laboratory in Baker County, Georgia. Originally established in the 1920s as a quail hunting reserve by The Coca-Cola Company chairman Robert W. Woodruff, Ichauway includes 17,000 acres of mature, second-growth longleaf pine forest. As the only non-scientist on the panel, Neel was tapped for his thorough working knowledge of the longleaf pine in southwest Georgia. "Leon really is the dean of longleaf pine," says Dr. Lindsay Boring, director of the Jones Center.

Neel has done some advising on prescribed burns and uneven-aged management in the publicly owned, 564,000-acre Apalachicola National Forest, and as Angus Gholson puts it, stewards of public land "are beginning to listen." Neel has also conducted seminars for employees of the Georgia Forestry Commission and the Department of Natural Resources, groups he believes need continued training in ecological management.

He has influenced, directly or indirectly, the management of 300,000 to 500,000 acres of longleaf pine habitat, says Baker, a relatively small area in comparison to the forest's original 92-million-acre range but a significant amount of what's left, particularly of old-growth forest. "We're down to such a fraction of longleaf forest on land with little-disturbed ground cover and total diversity," Baker says. "We're going to have to save a high percentage of what's left to have any representation of the longleaf ecosystem."

Neel sees a long struggle ahead on both public and private lands. Once a major disturbance occurs, he says, it is possible to restore the ecosystem but only over a very long period of time. He uses the example of the red-cockaded woodpecker. A healthy, undisturbed longleaf ecosystem will include the woodpecker; clear-cutting old-growth timber will eradicate it. Since the red-cockaded prefers mature trees, at least 60 years must pass before there's even a possibility the birds will return. "So you've destroyed or altered the ecosystem, and then time is automatically factored in if you want to build it back, and who in the world is going to build it back?"

Some folks, like Ted Turner, will take the time to build it back, he adds, but they're few and far between.

"The best thing to do is not to destroy it to begin with," Neel says.

Leaving a Legacy

"Every landowner should not do exactly what Greenwood does, or Ichauway. But they've got to sacrifice something. You've got to eliminate greed and politics from it, and you can go ahead.

"You've got to think long-term. On private land it's more difficult to do that, with the exception of conservation easements. That's probably the best tool to come up in a long time to perpetuate a forest. Then the ownership makes no difference-the easement goes with the land and whoever owns it must abide by it."

A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between an easement holder and a landowner that permanently limits use of a property to protect its aesthetic or ecological resources. Landowners get reduced estate taxes, and future generations get to enjoy the land. Owners do not forfeit ownership of the property, and easements can be written to permit continued use for compatible purposes like recreational hunting and forestry.

In 1979, Neel was instrumental in engineering a conservation easement on the Wade Tract, a 200-acre Thomas County property that is an outstanding example of old-growth longleaf pine-wiregrass habitat. Herbert Stoddard began managing 10,000 acres for longleaf pine and quail for the Wade family in the 1930s. "Mr. Stoddard said many times it would certainly be nice if the best of the land could be preserved for science, or where science could be conducted," Neel says.

The land was divided among his three heirs when the elder Wade died. According to Neel, Jeptha Wade of Bedford, Massachusetts received the portion harboring the best longleaf pine. Raised in a tradition of philanthropy and aware of the tax benefits of an easement, Wade-a lawyer-drew up a one-page easement that included Leon's directives for forest management.

"I had always had in mind that this was property that should not be timbered and should be protected," says Wade. Unfortunately, a flaw in Georgia law left unclear whether an easement could be put on land where no buildings stood. The law was amended in the late 1970s, and Wade pushed through what he believes to be the first easement of its type in Georgia. Tall Timbers holds the easement rights and continues to conduct scientific research on the Wade Tract. Jeptha Wade still visits the Tract and has a winter home at nearby Arcadia Plantation. The original 1904 Wade family home is part of Millpond Plantation, owned by one of Jeptha's cousins.

"Leon is a fine and intelligent man. He's a good professional, which means that he mixes his business with the public interest," says Wade.

Neel, who was named Forest Conservationist of the Year in 1995 by the Florida Wildlife Federation, says his greatest achievement lies in helping seven landowners put conservation easements on their lands.

"That'll be the real Stoddard-Neel legacy, if through conservation easements some of these old-growth forests can be protected," says Jimmy Atkinson. "The protection of those lands is key to my kids and their kids even being able to see a 200-year-old forest. Leon says it takes a hundred years to grow a hundred-year-old pine tree. That's true-you can't start today and have an old-growth pine forest tomorrow. We've got to save what we have now."

Looking Toward the Future

The fate of the longleaf pine tree probably hangs in private hands, says Neel. He and scientists from the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Center authored A Model Management Plan for Conservation Easements, a publication that outlines for landowners how to protect longleaf pine-dominated landscapes.

Neel believes the government's role lies in giving private landowners financial incentives to retain and plant the trees. Beau Turner agrees.

"You can't force environmentalism down people throats," Turner asserts. "And you can't use the federal government to strong-arm and beat industry into submission. Do it in a softer way, with tax incentives to help pay the extra costs of getting longleaf pine started." Longleaf is more expensive to start, he says, but it produces a much better quality wood than slash or loblolly in the long-term, particularly under a multi-age management system where trees are allowed to mature. Individuals and industry may not respond to discussions of ethics and ecology, but they do react positively when taxes are brought into it.

Jerry McCollum, president of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, says a 1993 Georgia constitutional amendment positively impacted how non-industrial landowners pay ad valorem taxes on forested land. The "timber tax amendment," as it has come to be known, mandates that timber value be assessed only when trees are cut, rather than on an annual basis. Removal of the annual tax alleviated certain pressures to clear-cut land. Conservation easements, says McCollum, also encourage landowners not to clear-cut.

In addition to conservation easements, tax incentives, and holistic management, Leon cites education as an avenue for saving remaining longleaf pine forests. He praises organizations like the Jones Center, where research and conservation practices are shared through educational outreach. McCollum agrees, saying easements can't come to pass without educated landowners. Broad multi-generational awareness is necessary for the continued health of this ecosystem, he says. "Leon is a good example," McCollum says. "He is a student of forestry, even after being in the business for 50 years. He's always been inquisitive and willing to learn new things."

Teaching by example-showing anyone interested healthy longleaf pine forests where conservation and economics peacefully coexist-is another of Neel's conservation values. He's also pushing for continued scientific study of each and every plant and animal in the ecosystem and is encouraged by the applied research underway at the Jones Center.

After a full day in the field, Leon sits in front of a glowing fire and glances out the window toward the darkness descending around his home like a velvety blue curtain. He seems subdued but determined-a demeanor fitting to someone who's been involved in a long battle that is not likely to have a clearly defined denouement during his lifetime. He and Julie both appear quieter, less animated indoors, and now Leon is reflective.

"I guess if every longleaf pine tree in the world was eliminated, the human race would still be here," he says quietly. "But the point is, what's next to go? The only way to perpetuate our species is to respect where we came from-life itself. We don't even know what value this ecosystem is to us yet. We take these things for granted. We haven't learned the complexities of the longleaf ecosystem and how it affects us.

"It's a beautiful forest. Every day, night or day. In a rainstorm it's still beautiful, it's just different. Any weather, any season of the year it's fantastic. You look out there, and it's just stability represented out there.

"Of course, it's very fragile because man could destroy it in a minute, but you look at the forest and it looks solid. We need to make sure that this forest, in all its stability, is here for generations to come."


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