Louisiana Success Story: Building Lasting Partnerships
Louisiana Department of Agriculture & Forestry collaborates with like-minded organizations to manage state forest
Stand in the Alexander State Forest, and you’ll hear a symphony of staccato rat-a-tat-tats and the piccolo chirps of the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers high above you. Walk further toward an opening between the pines and you may see a rafter of wild turkeys, a jake and jenny foraging on nuts and grasses. Maybe you’ll be lucky and see a Louisiana pinesnake slither from one burrow to another.
On 8,000 acres in the middle of Louisiana, Alexander State Forest provides habitat for these and many other species in vast stands of longleaf pine along the Indian Creek Reservoir. That habitat always stands on a razors’ edge, however, because Louisiana has a high risk of wildfire, as does the rest of the southeast. Between 2001 and 2010, nearly half of all national ignitions and over 40 percent of the country’s large wildfires occurred in the region. One large wildfire in the area could be catastrophic, wiping out habitat and threatening many species’ futures.
It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort to minimize and control the wildfire risk in the state forest. Over 1,000 acres are burned every year through the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry’s prescribed fire management strategy. “In case we have a wildfire, those fuel reduction burns throughout the year keep the potential damage down,” said David Campbell, Forestry Program Director with the department. The department’s strategy builds upon the Southeastern Region Cohesive Fire Strategy, which focuses on restoring landscapes that need frequent fires to thrive, creating communities that withstand wildfire without loss of life and property, and developing effective wildfire management that reduces risk.
Those regular burns can be difficult to execute, though, as long dry seasons stretch trained personnel away from proactive measures to fighting wildfires raging around the state. Smoke management is also an important factor, because of the proximity of the town of Woodworth to the north and Interstate 49 to the east. The Department of Agriculture and Forestry works closely with local fire departments, other state agencies and others to implement smart and effective prescribed burns without interfering with the local communities.
“The prescribed fires benefit the wild turkeys and wildlife, too, because the state forest is also a wildlife management area,” Campbell said. “It’s very important for us to keep burning to keep the feed available for all the wildlife.” The Department of Agriculture and Forestry partners with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to maintain twelve Red-cockaded Woodpecker colonies, plant longleaf pine and to keep the stands open for the wild turkeys, Louisiana pinesnakes and other wildlife to flourish.
Longleaf habitat restoration is hand-in-hand with prescribed burns in how theAlexander State Forest is managed, because the species thrive in a habitat with good vegetation and healthy pollinators. “We want to create a mosaic of shrub-level and herbaceous vegetation, which work well together for healthy wildlife habitat, without it getting up to forest stand or mid-story levels and shading out other vegetation,” said Rodney McKay, Louisiana Forester with the National Wild Turkey Federation.
McKay and the NWTF support partners using prescribed fire as a wildlife management strategy in the state forest through a two-year grant under the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and funded by the Longleaf Stewardship Fund. “The money encourages the partners to do more prescribed burns or to be more creative with how they manage the habitat,” he said.
On top of the financial support, NWTF also provides technical assistance for private landowners in the area on how they can protect against wildfire risk while promoting wildlife habitat. McKay regularly points to the work at Alexander State Forest as an example. He’ll tell skeptical landowners, “If you’re not sure what you want to do, you’re welcome to get in my truck and I can show you some examples of public land where it’s been done and can be replicated on your land, too.”
McKay helps connect them to the numerous programs available to support them – whether through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the LSU AgCenter, or David Campbell at the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry. “We want to find a program that fits the private landowner’s situation, but that’s something they’re comfortable with and will follow through on because I want to see them sustain that through the years,” he said. “Knowing that those partnership opportunities are out there has tremendously helped more private landowners to apply longleaf pine ecosystem work and prescribed fire on their land.”
“Our partnerships are the thing we’re most proud of here at Alexander State Forest,” said Don Smith, Forestry Management Chief with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry. “We’re all trying to do more with less, and we’re all trying to work together to get this multiple use management strategy accomplished.” Smith stresses that “good communication and cooperation is key” to minimizing wildfire risk on public lands like Alexander State Forest.
McKay said that, “when we find people passionate about doing this type of habitat management and wildfire protection like all of our partners and many private landowners, we find good stewards of the land.”