Walking through this 100-acre pine forest in east-central Alabama, it’s easy to imagine what the early European settlers thought when they arrived in the state.
The forest provided resources to build cabins, but it also made a perfect hiding place for wild animals and human enemies, making it a frightening place. Settlers were mostly farmers; they cleared the land to farm. From 1880-1920, logging became big business. And soon the state’s natural forests were largely lost.
Dean Gjerstad (’66 forestry, MS ’69, PhD ’75) has spent his entire career growing, researching, and teaching students about Alabama pine forests. A retired professor of forestry at Auburn University, Dean was recently inducted into the Alabama Foresters’ Hall of Fame. He’s been involved in research and demonstrations to improve forest regeneration practices in Alabama and throughout the Southeast states, and he founded the Longleaf Alliance, an advocacy group for the retention, restoration, and management of longleaf pine forests in the area.
“Alabama’s native forest was longleaf pine,” Dean explains. “There were 90 million acres along the south Atlantic coast and inland to Alabama. The trees were resistant to fire and lived a long time – 300 to 500 years.”
Much of the longleaf pine was destroyed in the early 1900s. Currently, only about 3 million acres of the tall, straight longleaf trees exist in the South. The goal of the Alliance is to increase that to 10 million acres. In 2007, U.S. Forest Service data indicated the first-ever recorded increase in longleaf acreage, largely attributed to the work of the Alliance.
Most forested land in Alabama is privately owned. The Gjerstad family owns 100 acres, plus 40 acres just up the road. Their son recently bought an adjoining 60 acres.
“We have a little bit of longleaf [but mostly] it’s a loblolly pine tree farm. Our loblolly is around 32 years old,” Dean said.
“The thing about longleaf,” he explained, “is that it’s the highest quality – from an economic standpoint – pine tree in the region. The stems are very straight. The most valuable products produced are utility poles.”
Dean has been interested in forestry since he was a young child and dreamed of riding a horse out west. Today he says he’s satisfied with walking or riding through the woods on the family’s ATV.