The Art of Managing Longleaf

The surprising thing is so few people have heard of Leon Neel. Here’s a very interesting biography of this very influential pioneer in southeastern forestry and agriculture, including many interesting stories of south Georgia and north Florida life and politics:
The Art of Managing Longleaf:
A Personal History of the Stoddard-Neel Approach,
by Leon Neel, with Paul S. Sutter and Albert G. Way.
Leon Neel was a atudent, apprentice, and successor of Herbert Stoddard, who was originally hired by quail plantation owners around Thomasville to figure out why their quail populations were decreasing. The answer included a need to thin and especially to burn their longleaf pine tree forests. Stoddard and Neel studied and practiced for almost a century between them on how to preserve and increase the amount of standing timber and species diversity while also selectively harvesting trees to pay for the whole thing. Their Stoddard-Neel Approach is written up in textbooks. In this book we learn how it came about, and how it is basically different from the clearcut-thin-thin-clearcut “efficient” timbering cycle that is the current fad among pine tree growers in the southeast.

It starts back in the old days of Leon Neel’s youth when his daddy taught him to hunt quail:

But the larger lesson I want to convey concerns the doves and the fields and the way we learned about nature and land use through the experience of hunting. This was multiple-use land. We raised crops and livestock on it, but it also supported good wildlife populations, and that lesson stuck with me. Back then farm land was also wild land.
That was before the days of massive agrochemical spraying. Pesticides kill off weeds (well, except the mutant pigweed) but they also kill birds. (My father used to say that he didn’t like to spray pesticides because by the time he left the field every bird in the field was dead. So he kept his spraying to a minimum. I remember blackbirds so thick in the cornfields after he combined that you couldn’t see the sky. No more.)

But this isn’t just a nostalgia-fest.

Leon has taught us many things, but one of the most important is that if you do not have stories to tell about the lands you work and love, how can you hope to protect them?
For example, when Leon Neel went to the University of Georgia School of Forestry in 1947:
There was a course on forest fires, but it did not have anything to do with fire ecology or controlled burning. It was all propaganda about how destructive fire was.
How could he be so sure he was right when he had only just gotten to college? Because he’d already spent a lifetime growing up in the piney woods. (Ironically, his book is published by University of Georgia Press.)

The stories extend outside the woods to the pulp and paper industries and related university and state and local politics: when those companies grew in influence, how he headed them off the Red Hills, and the effects they had elsewhere:

…when the paper companies moved south and started buying land and destroying thousands and thousands of acres of longleaf land with native groundcover. They replaced these lands with monocultures of planted pine. Their process of site preparation was particularly destructive. They would broadcast spray herbicides to kill all the vegetation, and then plant the pines in bedded rows. That process destroyed an unknown number of rare and desirable plant species, and it made the land unlivable for many animal species. That was shameful, and it required a defensive response.
This is a forestry episode that may be relevant to the proposed biomass industry.

Who better to write about Herbert Stoddard than Leon Neel?

Ed Komarek once wrote, aboout Mr. Stoddard, that “time and hours were of no consequence, and anyone that worked with him had to realize this or lose his respect.” Ed was right about that. Time meant absolutely nothing to him when he was on a project. It did not matter what time of the day or night it was, or what the weather was like, or anything else. If he had something in mind to do, we were going to do it.
This is how Stoddard and Neel gained deep understanding of the fire forest ecology. Not by carefully allocated fixed-length time blocks; rather by taking the time a subject needed.

And by being adaptable.

It was not black and white, wrong and right, but he knew something was not working right, and at some point he gained enough insight to say, “Well maybe if I do this, it will be better.”

If Mr. Stoddard knew he was right, he would hold his ground against the U.S. Forestry Service. This is my favorite story from the book about that:

On the day the Forest Service official visited, they drove by, and Miss Sally was out in her yard. Not only that, but she had just burned around her housee, as the plantations generally let the people control a certain parcel of land around their houses. Mr. Stoddard stopped, they got out, Mr. Stoddard introduced this man to Miss Sally, and they talked for a while. Then the Forest Service official said, “Somebody’s been burning around your house here,” and she said “Yes, sir.” He asked, “Did the plantation do that?” And she said, “No sir, I did it. They let me do that, so I burned a couple of days ago.” He said, “Well, look at it. You burned up everything out there. Just look at it. That land that you burned, it’s just as black as you are.” Miss Sally paused for a minute and then politely replied, “Yes sir, and in about three weeks it’ll be just as green as you are!”

There is a chapter specifically about the Stoddard-Neel Approach, and of course there are textbooks that describe it in more algorithmic terms. But here’s the bottom line:

Some people say the Stoddard-Neel Approach cannot work for the majority of landowners in the longleaf belt, but I believe it can. There are landowners out there who have a conservation ethic and do not want to liquidate their timber, and I am hopeful that their ranks will grow. Our system can help them. Our philosophy works the same on a small tract as it does on a large one. We want to leave some for the future. Thas is the whole point of the Stoddard-Neel system: our historic longleaf forests took hundreds of generations to develop, and the values that inhere in the best remnants of those forests will last more than one generation. Indeed, effective longleaf restoration, which more and more people have begun to embrace, will also be a multigenerational process. Our forestry must look beyond one generation as well.
All that and reforestation produces twice as many jobs as biomass and nine times as many as nuclear.

And the notes at the end of the book are a goldmine of other longleaf references.

Buy this book.

1 thought on “The Art of Managing Longleaf

Comments are closed.