“The Birds and the Bombs”

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The Story

“The Birds and the Bombs”
by Ben Goldfarb
BioGraphic, 2016

The Pitch

When Jeff Walters arrived at Fort Bragg — a 160,000-acre North Carolina woodland that happens to be among the U.S. Army’s largest bases — in the early 1980s, he wasn’t thinking about longleaf pine conservation. The young scientist was fascinated instead by the social lives of the base’s red-cockaded woodpeckers, endangered birds renowned for their intricate familial structures. Older siblings within red-cockaded clans help their parents raise successive generations and excavate nesting cavities in living pine trees, a process that can take 13 years. Red-cockaded woodpeckers, says Walters, today an ecologist at Virginia Tech, behave less like birds than “like a troop of monkeys.”

Yet the more Walters learned about the social behavior of RCWs (as they’re known by woodpecker cognoscenti), the more interested he became in their habitat requirements. Woodpeckers favor sparse understory, the better to flit easily between trees. They also far prefer longleaf pine to other conifers. To thwart king snakes, their main predator, woodpeckers drill holes around the trunks of nesting trees, spilling sap to repel the arboreal reptiles. “Other pines, like loblolly, only produce sap for a few years,” Walters explains. “But longleaf pines pump out resin indefinitely. You look at the RCW’s historic range, and it’s exactly the same as longleaf’s.”

Just as the now-vanished chestnut once reigned over the Northeast, so the longleaf pine ruled the South. Although most Americans associate the Southeast with swamps, early explorers found “a vast forest of the most stately pine trees that can be imagined, planted by nature at a moderate distance,” from Virginia to Texas. Frequent lightning-sparked wildfires raced through the majestic conifers, clearing brush to create a manicured, needle-strewn woodland that teemed with birds and reptiles. But centuries of logging, agriculture, development, and fire suppression diced the southeast’s piney woods into a sad patchwork, reducing longleaf to around 5 percent of its former range. Today, the southeast’s military bases — Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and Fort Bragg — represent the largest refuges for longleaf and pine-dependent fauna.

In Walters’ early days at Fort Bragg, the army wasn’t thrilled about hosting an endangered bird. Walters, however, convinced the military to pursue an aggressive recovery strategy, arguing that the sooner the birds bounced back, the sooner training restrictions would vanish. With the army’s grudging endorsement, Walters hand-dug dozens of ersatz cavities with a flexible drill bit; his artificial holes ultimately attracted 19 family groups. Even better, the military realized that clear understory improved their own training exercises by making it easier to drive tanks and trucks through the forest. The same landscape that benefited woodpeckers also aided the army. Once the military devoted itself to RCW recovery, it was able to act with impunity, instituting aggressive fire cycles that mimic nature. To date, only three populations of red-cockaded woodpeckers have recovered — all on military bases.

Woodpeckers aren’t the only longleaf-lover to find shelter amidst Fort Bragg’s war games. The St. Francis satyr, a coin-sized butterfly that ranks among the rarest insects in the country, flourishes on the base’s artillery range, where bullets and bombs ignite brushfires that give rise to the butterfly’s favorite sedges. “The military has been incredibly forward-looking in its conservation plans,” says Nick Haddad, a North Carolina State ecologist who annually convinces the army to silence its barrages for 24 hours so that he can bound through the artillery range with a butterfly net. “But how do we expand what they’ve done beyond their bases?”

To that end, Haddad and Walters have made substantial progress on an ambitious scheme: connecting Fort Bragg’s woodpeckers, butterflies and reptiles with nearby state lands through a series of wildlife corridors. Their study species are finicky — RCWs won’t cross an open expanse broader than 600 meters, and butterflies need abundant streams and wetlands — so properly spacing conservation purchases is vital. In recent years, environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy have acquired thousands of private acres bridging Fort Bragg and the 58,000-acre Sandhills Game Land, guided by the two scientists’ research. “For a long time I thought connecting this area was impossible,” Walters admits. “Now it might actually happen.”

That success has Haddad dreaming even bigger. “Can you imagine a backbone of longleaf pine that runs from North Carolina all the way to Florida and Louisiana?” he ponders. Of course, that won’t be easy: Whereas western habitat corridors like Yellowstone to Yukon can sew together giant national parks such as Glacier and Banff, the Southeast is a thoroughly developed patchwork of farms, plantations, and cities. Even its national forests are riddled with private inholdings. Connecting longleaf, therefore, often means convincing landowners that it’s in their interest to plant the species. That task has fallen to groups like the Longleaf Alliance, a South Carolina nonprofit that works with everyone from lumber companies to wealthy plantation owners. Since the Alliance’s founding in 1995, longleaf cover has increased from 3 million acres to 4.7 million — still a meager fraction of the pine’s former glory, but a hint that Walters’ and Haddad’s vision has growing regional support. “We’ve lost our southern forests,” says Robert Abernathy, the wildlife biologist who directs the Alliance, “and we’re trying to bring them back.”

I’d love to write a feature for bioGraphic (say, 3,000 words) about the efforts of Jeff Walters, Nick Haddad, and the U.S. military to restore and connect the southeast’s longleaf pine forests for red-cockaded woodpeckers and other species. Walters has invited me to Fort Bragg in April, when he and colleagues will recommence monitoring the RCW’s conservation status and behavioral ecology for the 33rd consecutive year. (Every woodpecker sports color-coded legbands, allowing researchers to determine at a glance exactly who’s related to whom.) Other multimedia-rich reporting opportunities abound, such as joining Haddad on a butterfly research trip (alas, not to the artillery range — security has been tight since a scavenger blew himself up on unexploded ordnance), touring privately managed timberlands with Abernathy and the Longleaf Alliance, or visiting researchers on Eglin Airforce Base.

This is a piece about the military’s surprising role in advancing conservation throughout the southeast; the scientists envisioning a new future for longleaf pine ecosystems; and the charismatic, hyper-social bird perched at the heart of those efforts. As Nick Haddad puts it, what the grizzly bear is to the Northern Rockies, the red-cockaded woodpecker is to longleaf pine — the umbrella species whose protection will benefit a vast, connected system. And what Yellowstone is to the bear, Fort Bragg is to the bird.

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