By Lee Shearer
ATHENS, Ga. — Climate change gets the most attention nowadays when it comes to human-caused environmental destruction, but it’s only one of the ways humans are shredding ecological webs of life.
One that’s under-reported is the growing spread of foreign plants like privet, a nondescript Asian shrub a U.S. Forest Service scientist once compared to an atomic bomb in its ability to obliterate everything around it.
Used for more than a century as a landscaping plant — the Sanford Stadium hedge is one — seven species of privet have now made their way into more than 600,000 acres of Georgia forest and countless urban and rural yards.
Other plants, mainly from China and other Asian countries, have also reached millions of acres in Georgia in a kind of slow-motion life-and-death struggle playing out in various scenarios not just in Georgia but across the world.
They get here and spread in various ways. Many brought here for planting because they’re pretty. Privet and dozens of other invasive exotic plants are a big and under-rated factor in why scientists are seeing steep declines in insect numbers and bird numbers in Georgia and elsewhere, says Georgia Department of Natural Resources botanist and ecologist Mincy Moffett.
“Invasive exotics is about extinction,” he said.
“We’re losing the Southern forest,” said Athens-Clarke County Ecological Resource Manager Mike Wharton.
When Wharton says forest, he’s not just talking about trees, but all the life in a forest — the birds that nest in the trees, the rabbits and voles beneath, the bugs or greenery they eat, even the soil micorganisms and worms.
As privet grows up in thickets, nothing can grow beneath it, and even the soil acidity is changed.
Forest researchers have found that the changed soil is more hospitable for invasive species of worms whose appetites accelerate litter composition and make soil harder, increasing stormwater runoff, Wharton explained.
Humans have been moving plants and animals around thousands of years, but the pressure on natural systems today from invading plants — privet, Japanese honeysuckle, English ivy and many more — is unprecedented, said Karan Rawlins, invasive species coordinator at the University of Georgia’s Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health.
“People have always mixed things up, but in modern times it has sped up, more than a natural system can adapt to,” she said.
No one expects to be able to roll back the invasion, but state land managers, among others, are working to protect and restore what they can. Many landscapes still remain relatively untouched by non-native invasion.
Locally, the State Botanical Garden has been rolling back the exotic plants infesting its forests, and a volunteer group called the Weed Warriors saw native plants return to Athens’ Memorial Park as they worked over years to eradicate the park’s heavy load of privet, ivy and other exotics.
As Athens-Clarke’s Wharton spoke this summer, he watched a small army of volunteers from Athens’ Pilgrims Pride poultry processing plant toil for days in July heat removing privet and other invasive plants from a stretch of the North Oconee River near downtown Athens, giving a head start of years on what Wharton hopes will be a much larger restoration along the river.
When native plants return to the area, re-emerging or seeded with a recipe created by State Botanical Garden of Georgia conservationist Linda Chafin, the stretch will be a seed bank for native plantings elsewhere as Athens-Clarke land managers reclaim more exotic-occupied territory, Wharton said.
“As we pull it back, we’re going to see how beautiful this area is,” Wharton said.
Forest ecologists like Rawlins also hope state lawmakers can be convinced of how serious a threat invasive exotic plants really are.
Georgia is one of just four states that don’t have a noxious weed law that could reduce the sale and use of foreign plants known to be invasion threats.
By Beth Gavrilles
The longleaf pine forests of the southeastern U.S. depend on frequent fire to maintain their structure and the diversity of plants and animals they support. New research from the University of Georgia has found that fire may be playing another, unexpected role: releasing excessive nitrogen that appears to have accumulated as a legacy of prior land use.
“It was not what we were expecting,” said senior author Nina Wurzburger, an associate professor in the Odum School of Ecology. “We first were wondering whether there was enough nitrogen fixation to balance nitrogen losses from fire, and now our hypothesis is that fire might be necessary to remove excess nitrogen from these ecosystems. We basically turned the question on its head.”
“We came to the conclusion that fire might be getting rid of excess nitrogen,” said Wurzburger. “Most of the longleaf pine that exists today has been planted, and those areas have legacy effects of agriculture or grazing or fire exclusion. Our research is suggesting that all those things, and nitrogen deposition too, have put too much nitrogen in the ecosystem. So maybe we should think about fire as a management tool to remove nitrogen that accumulated historically, and to help return these ecosystems to their natural nitrogen-poor state.”
Understanding the interacting role of fire and historical disturbances in longleaf ecosystems is important for several reasons, including carbon sequestration and the conservation of biodiversity: longleaf savannas can contain more than 40 species of plants in a square meter, and harbor a number of rare species of plants and animals, including the federally endangered red cockaded woodpecker.
By Emily Jones
If there’s one thing Georgia has a ton of — actually a billion tons — it’s trees. The state leads the country in acres of private timberland and volume of timber harvested. Some in the timber industry think we should turn more of that wood into electricity.
From several stories up at Exelon’s Albany Green Energy plant, you can see a massive pile of chipped up wood, known as biomass. A long conveyor carries it up into the plant, where it’s fed into a boiler.
The biomass burns to make electricity for Georgia Power. Around the corner from the wood pile, a long tube snakes off, carrying leftover steam to power a Proctor and Gamble plant.
From the top of the power plant, you can also see trees: miles and miles of forest in every direction.
But, “we’re not just going out and grabbing a tree, being able to use that tree,” said plant manager James Luckey. “Most of our fuel is coming from treetops, and mill residuals that come from paper mills or something like that.”
They burn the stuff that can’t be made into lumber or paper products. Advocates in the timber industry say there’s plenty of wood waste like that in Georgia that could be made into power.
Johnny Bembry owns a tree farm in Pulaski County. He ends up with waste when he thins his trees to prevent fires and disease.
“That waste from the thinning, it’s going to have to be burned,” Bembry said. “It’s either going to be burned in the woods and wasted, and release carbon in that manner, or it could be burned for energy creation.”
The Georgia Forestry Association, an industry group, is calling for more power plants around the state that burn biomass. They say it’s a good use for leftover wood, cleaner than coal, and renewable because you can keep growing trees.
“They’re talking about sustainability in terms of, ‘well, we replant,’” said Vicki Weeks of the Dogwood Alliance, which opposes biomass power. “We’re talking about, we can’t afford to lose 40 to 50 years in terms of CO2 uptake.”
By Samantha Max and Maya Miller
As wildfires ravage the West, environmentalists and landowners in Georgia and the Southeast are preventing uncontrolled blazes and preserving the environment with prescribed burns.
Mark Melvin lit a match and dropped it to the forest floor. He then lit another and another, blazing a circle of flames around a towering pine tree.
Soon, a bright orange glow swallowed 113 acres of brush, radiating a skin-piercing heat. A thick fog rose from the ground, casting a shadow on the amber tree trunks looming above.
Lighting fires is like playing a game of chess, Melvin said. You always have to be one step ahead.
“I can see the fire before I light it,” he said.
Melvin is no arsonist. He’s a forest manager, responsible for about 18,000 acres of woods at the Joseph W. Jones Center at Ichauway Plantation in southwest Georgia. The expansive range, once the quail hunting preserve of Coca-Cola’s former president and host to distinguished guests like former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, is now a living laboratory for some of the country’s leading environmental scientists.
Each winter for the last two decades, Melvin has set fires to cement that legacy. On days when the weather and wind allow, he makes a detailed plan, applies for a burn permit from the Georgia Forestry Commission, and suits up in a mustard jacket and brown leather boots for a few hours of fire and smoke.
For him, fire is not just destructive — it’s an agent of change. The flames lick away layers of pine needles and fallen leaves, clearing a path for sunlight to seep in and sprout fresh shoots of grass.
Forests need fire. Without them, plants die, animals leave, and mounds of flammable undergrowth pile high. Rather than wait for a lightning strike or cigarette butt to spark an uncontrollable wave of flames, Melvin conducts controlled burns, also known as prescribed fire.
“Just like a doctor prescribes medication to keep their patient healthy, we prescribe fire to keep the forest healthy,” Melvin said.
Read more here: https://www.macon.com/news/state/georgia/article230380414.html#storylink=cpy