Thursday, April 25, 2013

50 years ago: Remembering the Flomaton Old-growth Longleaf Tract

Alabama's last old growth longleaf, 1963. Click to enlarge.

I recently found this photo in an old file drawer, and I don't think it has been digitized before. The photographer is not given. Written in pencil on the back is "Hauss Park Old Growth Longleaf near Flomaton, AL  1963." This once-spectacular 60-acre remnant of Alabama's forest history is gone forever. In 2008 the tract was divested by the Birmingham-based forest management company that owned it to an adjacent landowner who then clear-cut it. The day I found out, I contacted a friend in the company who assured me they contacted various potential conservation buyers, organizations, and individuals to see if they had an interest in buying the property, but I know many in the conservation community were taken by complete surprise when it was cut. It could have and should have been saved. Below is a description, taken from an Alabama Forestry Commission web page that is no longer accessible:
The 60-acre area was well known, well researched, and well used. What made this forest biologically unique is that it was well over 3 centuries old and was among the last parcel of land of its kind in the world (only a few other virgin longleaf pine stands remain across 9 southern states; and now no more of its kind in Alabama). To put it another way, this one forest was over 100 years old before Alabama became a state in 1819.
The original owner of the tract in the early 1900's was Alger-Sullivan Lumber Company and the owner set it aside on purpose (having cut everything else around it). Local folklore indicates this owner called it the "hell freezes over area"; which were the conditions under which he would have cut it. Since then, the property has changed hands several times; all to large timber companies. Due to its rarity, these forestry companies continued to preserve the location as natural area significant to Alabama and the Southeast. In 1963, the National Society of American Foresters (SAF) designated it as E. A. Hauss Old Growth Longleaf Natural Area. The SAF's definition of a natural area is "a tract of land set aside to preserve permanently in unmodified condition a representative unit of virgin growth of a major forest type, with the preservation primarily for scientific and educational purposes". The area was used extensively by local 4-H clubs, civic groups, etc. In 1998 when the adjacent state highway was widened, Champion International offered the trees removed from the ROW to Colonial Williamsburg to restore historic buildings due to the scarcity of old growth longleaf pine timbers. Also, Auburn University School of Forestry used the area for over a decade to study the conditions of longleaf pine forests in their most primal state. It was later renamed the Flomaton Natural Area.
A wildfire in 1993 burned only 5 acres, but due to the heavy duff accumulation from decades of fire suppression, all of the old trees that were burned died due to root damage, including one that was 345 years old. The Auburn University School of Forestry (spearheaded by John Kush) made great progress in reintroducing fire to the stand and restoring some of the original groundcover. In 2004 Hurricane Ivan brought down many of the giants. But it remained a site of tremendous ecological, educational, recreational, and research value.

Without the much-needed protection of a conservation easement, greed and ignorance prevailed in the end, as so often happens. The current view below is looking eastward from the nearby church. The stand began at the road near the bottom of the photo by the lone tree and extended all the way to the distant treeline.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Blake Shelton, Turtle Killer?

Shelton is an entertainer known for supporting conservation (at least the hunting and fishing kind) in his home state of Oklahoma. He has over a million Twitter followers and is admired by young people across the country. And this is the example he chose to set yesterday. His arrogance after being called on it is disgusting. He needs to publicly apologize, and a hefty donation to Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC) and/or or other turtle conservation groups wouldn't hurt. Some of his fans are taking his side, but most seem shocked. Here are some of the reply (in bold) comments from Shelton:
": That turtle's life meant something- was your tweet a bad joke? Why would you be so cruel to a living being?” Shut up...
Yes. He just told a fan to shut up.
": So you mean it's okay to kill innocent animals just because you donated money?” Sweety.. The adults are talking right now..
Hey .. I solely have raised over a million dollars in animal rescue/conservation alone... How much have you raised? Oh. Ok. Next!
": My family has raised more than a million for conservation and we don't kill wildlife. Beat that one!” I do. And eat them.

What an ass. Boycott Shelton's records, his appearances (including NBC's The Voice), and his sponsors. This guy's 15 minutes are about up.

Update:  Buzzfeed just posted good coverage of this--with way more tweets than I was able to find--here.  His Facebook page is heating up too.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Back in the saddle...

Flattened musk turtle, Sternotherus depressus
It's been a year and 4 days since I last blogged. Facebook has taken the place of blogging to some degree, but I'm going to try to revive this old blog. Julia Zickefoose, whose blog is a favorite of mine, recently lamented in this interview "the decline of blogging in favor of the more immediate (and infinitely more shallow) frisson of social networking. I’m convinced that if I didn't share every blog post on Facebook, nobody would read my blog anymore."

It's the beginning of serious field season for me. I'm trapping flattened musk turtles at a concrete bridge removal site on Brushy Creek in Bankhead National Forest to get them out of harm's way before tomorrow's scheduled demolition. It's also red-cockaded woodpecker nesting time, and I need to be about three other places at once to monitor nests. On top of that, I'm preparing final maps and assimilating publication-quality images from numerous sources for two volumes that will update Bob Mount's The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama. Oh, and co-editing a natural communities book.  More on all that later.

Finally, check out Dave Steen's excellent blog over at Living Alongside Wildlife.  It's been a while since I actually went there (sorry Dave!), but I just did and I like what he's done with the place. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

I for one welcome our new FOX overlords...

Enough about Opp for a while; time to spotlight my neighbors down the road in Lockhart. This greets travelers on AL Hwy 55 between Andalusia and Florala.  I can almost sort of understand someone having this sentiment (it sure isn't mine), but to go to all the trouble to have a sign painted for the world to see is beyond me.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Need Info on Rattlesnakes? [Updated]

Then don't go to the Opp Rattlesnake Rodeo's website and click Rattlesnakes: Facts, Information [UPDATE: This link no longer works; as of 5 March there is no longer a link to ANY sort of rattlesnake info from the Opp Rodeo page  UPDATE#2: It's inexplicably back again, same as before]. Although the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, the Timber Rattlesnake, and the Pigmy Rattlesnake are the three species native to south Alabama, they are not even mentioned by name. But there's tons of generic information on diet, reproduction, etc. Who pulled all this together? Nobody with Opp, it turns out. The local effort that went into this educational resource is zero. It's all lifted verbatim from the Wikipedia Rattlesnake page, minus certain details and all hyperlinks and citations (thanks Dave).
And under "Safety," a photo is provided of a young woman needlessly bare-handing a large eastern diamondback while a grown, bearded man assists. (An old Rodeo program I once had said the snake hunt was "the call of the wild to grown, bearded men.") If you need to pick up a rattler, always use a snake hook. This is safety? More like a display of what not to do.
April 11 2011 edit: At the request of the photographer (a City of Opp employee; see comments below) I've removed the image from this blog post.  There's no photographer credit on the official page I link to above (I couldn't know who to credit) and this kind of thing falls within "fair use" allowances, but I wouldn't want my photo being used without my permission, either.  You can see it here as long as the City keeps it on the website.
The Opp Rodeo has a wonderful opportunity to reach young people with a responsible environmental and safety message. It's a shame they're falling so far short of that potential.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Opp Rodeo Facebook Correspondence

From the Opp Rattlesnake Rodeo's Facebook page. Synopsis:

"There's a loaded gun on the table. What if the kids get hold of it?"

"Don't worry. Safety comes first!"

[gun stays on table]

Friday, January 28, 2011

City of Opp Now Paying Snake Bounty?

The City of Opp's Rattlesnake Rodeo website doesn't have much useful information on the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (it doesn't even mention the species by name), but it does offer sound advice regarding what to do if you encounter one: "avoid contact with rattlesnakes by remaining observant and not approaching the animals." Despite that, the city has just announced a new policy of paying the general public a bounty of $8 per foot for eastern diamondback rattlesnakes over 2 feet long, or $100 for any snake over 5 feet long. Mayor H.D. Edgar is quoted saying, "We've been paying our hunters in the past, but a lot of them have quit. We've got to have a new source of snakes for the snake shows, so everyone thought this would be a good idea to get the public involved once again." I wonder if "everyone" included the city attorney, because it would seem that the city is setting itself up for a huge liability exposure. And the city needs rattlesnakes for what, exactly? Two things only: to be put on display and to be "raced." The snakes are actually playing less and less of a role in this popular annual event. Of course they don't need wild-caught rattlesnakes to have a buck-dance contest, a car race, or a concert. A few captive snakes could be brought out each year for display and attendance would not suffer.

For decades the standard snake hunting technique was to introduce gasoline fumes into gopher tortoise burrows to drive out rattlesnakes. This effective but extremely harmful practice is now illegal in Alabama. Rodeo promoters claim this is no longer done, but they don't say how they police themselves. And now the city has opened the field up to anyone, without cautioning against gassing burrows. It's going to be happening, no question.

A growing number of people are calling for this event to change. At the Rodeo, children are seeing large numbers of a declining species of native wildlife being rounded up, mistreated, and slaughtered (behind the scenes; they used to chop off heads in public but no longer) for no reason other than it's a snake. This is not how to instill a respect for nature in the next generation. Other towns that had snake rodeos, such as Fitzgerald, Georgia and San Antonio Florida, have successfully shifted the emphasis of their event away from the wild snake roundup. At the San Antonio Rattlesnake Festival, education presentations feature snakes that are not abused or harassed, the crowd is entertained, and children go home with a new respect for wildlife. That event draws 30,000 visitors and raises thousands of dollars for local nonprofits.

Opp City Planner Don Childre has long defended the wild snake hunt by claiming the snakes are still as common as ever. His credibility went out the window, however, when he was quoted in yesterday's Opp News falsely stating that rattlesnakes bear young several times a year for an annual average of 100 young! In fact, diamondbacks bear young once in the late summer, with an average litter of about a dozen young. Then he falsely equates the regulated harvest of game species to the unregulated take of rattlesnakes: "We hunt [gray squirrels and whitetail deer] and no one says anything, but they make a lot of noise about snake hunting for some reason." See what he did there? Using that logic, I suppose he'd say we can also have unregulated take on sea turtles, because one female can produce over 500 hatchlings in a year.

Eastern diamondbacks are declining primarily due to habitat degradation, not snake roundups, but the latter is not helping. Their environmental impact has been documented by Dr. D. Bruce Means of Florida State University and the Coastal Plains Institute here (PDF).

It's either time for the State of Alabama to step up and regulate the take of rattlesnakes for such purposes, or for Opp to change its annual event to a wildlife appreciation festival. By doing so they would continue to bring in revenue to the local economy while educating young people and conserving the diversity of nature that we are so fortunate to have in this part of the country.