Georgia Journal of Science


Montane longleaf pine forests, woodlands, and savannas are endangered, fire-dependent ecosystems of the Piedmont, Ridge and Valley, Appalachian, and Cumberland Plateau physiographic provinces of Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina. Compared to other longleaf pine ecosystems, e.g., longleaf pine-wiregrass, little has been published about montane longleaf pine ecosystems. Understanding the historic fire regimes that once maintained montane longleaf pine ecosystems is an important first step toward achieving restoration and conservation goals for this ecosystem. I used two approaches to investigate historic fire regimes: 1) a dendrochronological study of fire scars on Sprewell Bluff Natural Area and 2) calculations of the average fire tolerance of tree species recorded on 1820s land lottery maps and 2005 surveys. Three distinct periods of fire history were revealed: pre-1840, with an average fire interval of 2.6 years; 1840–1915, with an average fire interval of 1.2 years; and 1915–present, with an average fire interval of 11.4 years. Season of fire differed between periods with all seasons of fire common prior to 1840, mostly winter fires from 1840 to 1915, and mostly spring and early summer fires from 1915 to the present. Land lottery data suggested montane longleaf ecosystems of the 1820s were most similar in fire tolerance to areas of longleaf-wiregrass, as compared to several other historic Georgia forest types. Modern forests had much lower scores of fire tolerance. Differences in species composition accounted for these changes in scores; historic montane longleaf ecosystems had larger components of pine (Pinus spp.), post oak (Quercus stellate Wangenh.), and blackjack oak (Q. marilandica Muenchh.), while modern forests had higher densities of chestnut oak (Q. prinus Willd.) and hickory (Carya spp.). My results suggest a fire return interval of two to three years is needed to halt the continued loss of the montane longleaf pine ecosystem.


This work was supported by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Nongame Natural Heritage Section, Georgia State Parks, and Georgia Power. Ken VanHoy helped prepare specimens and Melissa Hayes helped with data entry. I am grateful to the suggestions provided by two anonymous reviewers. The research would not have been possible without the help of Dr. Stacy Clark who got me started in dendrochronology.