At Coontail Farm Goals common for timber, wildlife

In 1928, the Dixie Crusaders swept into the South. Sent by the American Forestry Association, scores of Northerners journeyed to Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina, proclaiming a message of impending environmental doom and desolation.

They preached a gospel of prevention, advocating that all fires, little and large, were destroying the fabric and future of America's timberlands. The Crusaders proved to be zealous, organized, industrious, well-intentioned — and very wrong.

In the South, optimal maintenance of timber has evolved into a combination of fire and herbicide. Visitors attending a tour at Coontail Farm, Aberdeen, Miss., saw firsthand the benefits of proper forestry management, led by co-owner and manager of Coontail Farm, Bobby Watkins.

Possessing a wiry frame, closely cropped hair, and a calm demeanor — Watkins exudes a sense of stability. As he walked a trail, leading a tour through 200 acres of woodlands, that same stability was evident in the surrounding canopy. Watkins' family has owned the land since the 1950s, and in 1986, planted pines in what was once mainly open ground. The farm has a distinct balance, and an undeniable efficiency, evident in the healthy timber stands, clean trails, and abundant wildlife.

Today, Coontail is a prime example of how private landowners can manage timber for profit, while maintaining environmental balance. The acreage contains side-by-side tracts of treated and untreated forest, allowing observers a distinct before-and-after view.

It's not a stretch to state that Coontail is at the forefront of forestry management, sustaining an unusual set of bedfellows: wildlife, ecology, profit and education. Watkins' farm offers a bounty of lessons to landowners or potential landowners.

Acreage is a finite commodity, and the current trend shows a dramatic increase in land purchased primarily for recreation. Initially, landowner priorities usually focus on hunting, fishing, family, tradition, and stewardship. Yet, over time, these priorities shift.

Tim Traugott, Extension professor, Department of Forestry, Mississippi State University, said that priorities give way when owners see taxes, food plot costs and management expenses. “It is a cycle that eventually gets back to the dollar bill.”

Therefore, despite the appearance that recreation is the premium priority in regard to private land ownership, the investment and potential income make proper management essential.

Coontail Farm is an ideal location to observe planned management, particularly in pine stands. Wes Burger, professor and wildlife research biologist, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Mississippi State University, believes the optimal method of maintaining a pine stand is through controlled fire and herbicide.

“When we use these tools together — thinning, burning and herbicide — it restores structure and produces long-term conservation benefits.” Burger is a strong advocate for tree management, calling it a “win-win-win situation.”

A major impediment to pine stand success comes from mid-story hardwood growth. Over time, natural plant succession moves a pine stand to hardwood. Efforts have to be made to reduce natural plant succession to its first stage (the most productive wildlife stage).

Prescribed fire plays an essential role in restricting natural plant succession — removing mid-story, undesirable hardwoods and changing the forest structure to allow for greater herbaceous production. The herbaceous increase (forage and cover) allows deer, turkey and quail to prosper.

However, stemming from the era of the Dixie Crusaders and extending to current public perception, fires are often equated with environmental vandalism or the wanton destruction of natural beauty. Ignorance can often fuel extremism, and such is the case in regard to the opposition surrounding prescribed fires and burns.

According to Burger, fire is the foremost regenerative natural process in forestry. “It can be used as an ecological restoration tool,” he said. A pine stand functions best when kept open, promoting an abundance of herbaceous and shrub groundcover. When fire is eliminated, mid-story hardwoods abound, blocking penetration of sunlight to the ground, and diminishing vital forage and cover for wildlife.

Forestry fallacies aren't limited to fire; timber harvesting also holds its share of false perceptions. Traugott detailed a double standard between the harvesting of agriculture and forestry, describing how “don't cut” slogans are unfair and unrealistic to tree harvesting.

“There's this misconception I like to call ‘rotten apple syndrome.’ You've got a whole barrel of apples, and every apple is just as pretty and red as can be, but with one rotten apple on top — what are you going to remember?” he said. “You drive down the road … when you see a clear-cut, that's what you remember. There's a syndrome that we have to get over. People tend to look at what they want to see. The rotten apple stands out. The clear-cut stands out.”

Traugott's sentiments on clear-cuts were bolstered by Andrew Ezell, professor, Department of Forestry, Mississippi State University. “For example, in Mississippi there are currently 19 million forested acres. Only 150,000 of those acres are clear-cut annually.”

Ezell believes that despite hurdles, forestry has a distinct advantage over conventional agriculture. If the market price for timber plunges, then landowners can simply “store it on the stump and leave their crop in the field” waiting until the next year to harvest and sell.

Coontail Farm remains a showcase in proper care and forestry management. For owners, land priorities will always be linked with hunting, stewardship, and a sense of family history. However, as Bobby Watkins and a host of Mississippi State professors demonstrated, a keen awareness of wildlife and ecology is an absolute necessity in partnering with those priorities.

Somewhere in that patchwork of priorities, the question of money inevitably arises. Ezell believes proper management is the answer. “Something is going to grow on the land. How many farmers get a crop by doing nothing?”

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