Silver Lake offers golden glimpse of forests past

By Phil Spivey

BAINBRIDGE, Ga. (June 2008) -- William Bartram, the fabled naturalist and explorer, set out to document the southern landscape in 1773 and traveled widely for four years by boat, horseback and foot throughout parts of the South from the Carolinas south and west into Georgia, Florida and Alabama.  He described riding for days through "magnificent savannas and its delightful groves, passing through a level, open, airy pine forest, the stately trees scatteringly planted by nature, arising straight and erect from the green carpet, embellished with various grasses and flowering plants."

It is estimated that prior to European settlement these longleaf pine forests and associated savannas covered 150,000 square miles from southeast Virginia south along the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains into eastern Texas, even extending into the piedmont and mountainous regions of Georgia and Alabama and likely containing 200 billion board feet of virgin longleaf timber.

Natural fires and others set by native Americans which may have burned for days or weeks were the ultimate architect of longleaf pine habitats, allowing this fire climax forest to spread throughout across the landscape except where interrupted by major river bottomlands or wetland complexes. Eons of fire allowed specific plant species to flourish, especially within the savanna or prairie-like groundcover, while at the same time favoring only longleaf as a canopy tree species.

Early settlers made use of the longleaf forest as naval store resources, by clearing patches for agriculture and through harvesting timber, which built many of our eastern cities. In modern times, large swatches of habitat were cleared and by 1996, only 2.95 million acres of longleaf pine habitat remained, mostly on large military bases or national forests.  Lack of frequent fires also diminished the quality of many thousands of acres.

In January, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, along with help from many other organizations, purchased a remnant tract of predominately longleaf pine forest in southwest Georgia's Decatur County from International Paper. The some 3,900 acres is known as the Silver Lake tract. This tract was part of a 16,000-acre forest known as the Southlands Experimental Forest, which was established in 1948 for forestry research because it represented habitats characteristic of many of the pine habitats within the Southeast, including areas supporting all four of the major southern pines -- longleaf, loblolly, slash and shortleaf.  The property is along the shore of Lake Seminole near Bainbridge.

Silver Lake was also designated as a mitigation site for red-cockaded woodpeckers found on other tracts owned by International Paper, with plans of eventually supporting up to 30 red-cockaded woodpecker family groups.

The state plans to purchase another 4,500 acres of adjacent forest later in 2008, all of which will be managed as a wildlife management area by the DNR's Wildlife Resources Division. Contributors to the 8,430-acre acquisition, priced at $38.6 million, include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Georgia Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund, the Doris Duke Foundation, the Woodruff Foundation, Decatur County, the National Wild Turkey Foundation, the Georgia Land Conservation Program, Southern Company and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (through the Longleaf Legacy Program), the Georgia Ornithological Society and The Conservation Fund, which purchased the property from International Paper with plans to sell it to the DNR.

Gov. Sonny Perdue announced funds to acquire 2,600 of the additional 4,500 acres in April at Silver Lake. Perdue also said the property will open to the public on Aug. 1, with hunting starting with the opening of small game season Aug. 15.

The Silver Lake tract contains about 1,800 acres of mature, uneven-aged longleaf habitat much like that described by Bartram. Some stands date to the early 1900s. For decades, frequent controlled burns were conducted to maintain the open, park-like setting that provides optimal habitat for many early successional and grassland species like the loggerhead shrike and Bachmans sparrow. Currently, about 18 red-cockaded woodpecker family groups make the mature longleaf pines home while bobwhite quail and wild turkey use the grassy understory.

Longleaf specialists like the Florida pine snake, coachwhip and gopher tortoises are common, and rare snakes including the southern hognose and eastern indigo snakes may be present. Dozens of isolated wetland ponds dot the landscape, some of which now hold water permanently following the creation of Lake Seminole in 1958. But others still provide important breeding sites for an assemblage of amphibians that use longleaf habitats. Ornate chorus and pinewoods tree frogs are especially abundant, but surveys will be needed to verify others.

Hardwood hammocks dominated by live oaks and huge loblolly pines provide refuge for white-tailed deer and wild turkeys.

Silver Lake itself, the 350-acre namesake of the property, supports several nesting pairs of osprey, at least one bald eagle nest and several small rookeries of wading birds along the cypress-lined shoreline. Wintering waterfowl also make use of the lake and isolated wetlands.

Recreational opportunities on the wildlife management area will include all compatible activities but especially hunting, fishing, birdwatching and hiking, all in an area of the state with little other public land.  The purchase will also complement Lake Seminole WMA, which is leased from the Army Corp of Engineers and is adjacent to the Silver Lake property. Consolidation of these tracts will ease management, especially for controlled burning.

Phil Spivey is a former wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Resources Division's Nongame Conservation Section.

William Bartram, the fabled naturalist and explorer, set out to document the southern landscape in 1773 and traveled widely for four years by boat, horseback and foot throughout parts of the South from the Carolinas south and west into Georgia, Florida and Alabama.