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Yes. Because the project represents a significant change in the management of county property, it was approved by the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission on October 7, 2014.
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We want to provide better habitat for native vegetation and animals. At the same time, we want to provide exceptional educational opportunities for our community about wildlife, forest succession, forest products, and wise forest management practices. The permanent changes that go hand-in-hand with this project also enable us to be better stewards of our land and the natural resources entrusted to us.
Approximately 30 of our 225 acres, or just over 13 percent of our total acreage.
At the north end of the nature center property, between the Education & Visitor Center and the northern property line.
No. Four of the five tracts will be pine; the fifth will be hardwoods. Three of the pine tracts will be planted; the fourth will be allowed to naturally reseed from shelterwood trees left during harvest.
This property, like most of Piedmont Georgia, was used for intensive cotton production beginning in the early 1800s, which led to severe erosion and degradation of the soil. By the 1940s, the soils were depleted and barely able to support the sharecropping families who lived here. Very little of this part of the site was actively involved in the brick production that dominated other parts of the nature center property, but waste bricks and other debris were dumped here. Starting in the early 1950s, row crop agriculture was slowly abandoned, with the last farming ending around 1980, leaving the nutrient-poor land fallow. Eventually grasses, shrubs and pines began the process of returning to a climax forest. In the 1970s, when Sandy Creek Nature Center was founded, portions of this part of the site were still a mix of meadows and young pine trees. In the more than 40 years since, the pines have shaded out the meadows, creating an overcrowded, monocultural second-growth forest with low diversity.
Yes. The goal is to encourage the right amount of growth at the forest floor, and the right kinds of vegetation. In a Piedmont ecosystem unaltered by humans, low-intensity fires would sweep through every few years. Studies show these fires limited the height and density of ground-level vegetation. Fires happened frequently and kept fuel levels low, and typically remained too close to the ground to ignite the canopy. Many native plants evolved to depend on fire and cannot thrive without it. This project recreates this important aspect of Piedmont forest ecology using carefully supervised prescribed burns where and when appropriate.
Yes. Fire is a natural part of Georgia’s Piedmont region, historically sweeping through sites every few years. Fire suppression efforts from the late 1800s until now have, along with some other factors such as invasive species, dramatically changed the ecology of our forests.
Sandy Creek Nature Center is working in partnership with the Georgia Forestry Commission, the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to conduct controlled burns in our managed forest. Appropriate timing and close attention to conditions are effective at keeping controlled burns under control. These fires clean out dense vegetation and dead wood at ground level without harming trees or spreading into adjacent areas. Controlled fires are slow-moving and of low intensity, allowing animals to burrow to safety or escape. Public notice will be provided. Controlled burns have been conducted annually in the center’s Piedmont Prairie.
Yes – but not all at once.
Each of the three planted pine sites will be cut once every 50-60 years. Cutting will be staggered so that only one plot is cut at a time, at roughly 15-year intervals. Harvesting will take place in the late winter and the harvested tract will be replanted, encouraging seedlings and other vegetation to flourish.
For the pine shelterwood site, the oldest trees are removed once every 50 years. Starting about 5 years before the final harvest, trees are thinned to around 30- 50 of the best trees per acre and natural reseeding is encouraged. When the final harvest takes place, the seedlings are about 3-5 feet tall, thus the site is never really “clear cut.” Some clearing will be necessary initially to get the desired spacing between trees.
For each of the four pine sites, whenever possible, a minimum of five large trees (12 inches or more in diameter) will be left per acre when sites are cleared or trees are cut. These large standing trees, along with the stumps remaining after harvest, provide much-needed wildlife nesting and foraging sites.
On the hardwood site, the shelterwood harvest method is used. It will take about 12-18 years for the planted mast-producing trees to become established. Some thinning will take place over time to encourage healthy tree growth and wildlife food/shelter production. The site will not be cleared again for another 80-120 years. Current plans are to stagger the final cut so it takes place in the years between clearing of either of the adjacent pine tracts.
All five sites will be burned this fall/winter to eradicate invasive plants, remove dangerous wildfire fuels, and provide nutrients needed for plant growth. One 5- acre tract – the first of the planted pine tracts – will be cleared. The other four tracts will be thinned and the hardwood forest will have the understory removed.
Yes. The tracts are relatively flat and not prone to excessive storm water runoff, making them well-suited to these forest management techniques. Thinning opens the canopy to allow the forest floor to receive sunlight, helping promote the re-establishment of Piedmont forest meadows that were once common. Harvestable timber will be sold to offset the cost of the project and to put the wood to good use. Fire-breaks will create access corridors which will limit the impact of operations on the forest floor. These firebreaks will be used as access and recreational trails. The demonstration project will follow and teach best forest management practices to minimize impact and promote healthy regrowth.
The project leaves forest buffers in place around the managed tracts to reduce the visual impact of the initial clearing, especially north of the Education & Visitor Center. In addition, the border zones where managed forest tracts transition into buffer areas will provide excellent habitat.
We have conducted surveys of the future managed forest area and have found no evidence of rare or endangered species there. We will make adjustments if any are found in the future.
Species such as Chinese privet, Elaeagnus (autumn olive), Nandina, English ivy, honeysuckle, and fire ants present a challenge at Sandy Creek Nature Center. In some parts of the site, they have crowded out native vegetation, changing the nature and ecology of the forest and limiting important sources of food for year round and migratory animals. This project utilizes prescribed fire, handcutting, mechanical mulching, and targeted application of herbicides to remove non-native species. The creation of a more diverse habitat allows native plants and animals to thrive at Sandy Creek Nature Center. This provides educational opportunities to understand the importance of control and eradication of exotic invasives.
Sandy Creek Nature Center, Inc., has already raised over $67,000 needed for the project, including startup and three years of management. Funding for this project is a significant, long-term commitment, especially since the managed forest will require at least 80 years to reach maturity.
Yes. Among the groups and organizations submitting letters of support and working as partners on the project are Oconee Rivers Audubon Society, the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, the Georgia Forestry Commission, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the United States Forest Service, and a number of Athens-Clarke County staff and organizations, including the county forester, environmental coordinator, Landscape Division, and Oconee Rivers Greenway Commission. We have also received the support and guidance of professional foresters who have served on the Sandy Creek Nature Center, Inc., Board of Directors.