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Planting southern pines: Wakeley envisioned economic potential

The period from 1900 to 1920 marked the “golden” era of lumbering in Louisiana; an era when the state’s old-growth forests were harvested with a “cut-out and get-out” attitude.

Large and small sawmills harvested these forests with no thought of reforestation. Many of these companies abandoned their cutover lands and ownership of them reverted to the state when taxes were not paid.

The lumbermen were cutting stands of trees that were up to 250 years old and they had no concept that new stands were economically feasible.

However, a few people began to see the economic potential of reforesting the cut-over land. Henry E. Hardtner of the Urania Lumber Co. led this effort. As early as 1905, he began advocating that another crop of trees could be grown in about 50 years. On his land, he demonstrated the potential of naturally regenerating forests. In 1920, William H. Sullivan of the Great Southern Lumber Co. at Bogalusa visited Hardtner and became convinced Hardtner was right: another forest could be grown.

Sullivan then began an impressive program to develop artificial regeneration technology. The Great Southern Lumber Co. had up to 300,000 acres of cut-over forests. Due to aggressive harvesting methods, much of this land had no source of natural regeneration. So, he began an effort to reforest the company’s land by growing and planting pine seedlings.

These lumbermen then began demonstrating methods that could reforest the millions of acres of cut-over forest land across the South. In 1924, a third essential person, Philip C. Wakeley, would join the triumvirate that would provide the technology to restore the South’s devastated forests.

Wakeley was a native of New York and graduated in 1924 from Cornell University with a master’s degree in forestry. He was hired by the U.S. Forest Service, Southern Forest Experiment Station that had been established in 1921 with its headquarters in New Orleans. At the time the Southern Station provided scientific support for forestry organizations across the southern coastal plain from the Carolinas to East Texas.

When Wakeley arrived in New Orleans, he was immediately assigned to Bogalusa to work on developing reforestation technology in cooperation with the Great Southern Lumber Co. At the time, there were fewer than 20 professionally trained foresters in the South and about one-third of these worked for the newly created Southern Forest Experiment Station. The budget was small and there was no technical support staff. In fact, even small items like paper clips were limited. Wakeley noted the response to his January 1926 request for some paper clips, “12 were sent in an envelope, with a note urging me to use them carefully, as they were the allotment for the Bogalusa Work Center.”

What Wakeley lacked in support was more than made up by his dedication, creativity and organizational skills.

When he arrived to work collaboratively with the Great Southern Lumber Co., the company’s ranger, F.O. “Red” Bateman, already had worked out some basic nursery and planting techniques for southern pines. Bateman had no forestry training, but within three years he had worked the essentials of the general nursery practices still used today.

These practices included slit planting of bare-root seedlings grown in moderate seedbed densities in the nursery, the planting tool or dibble that is still used to plant seedlings, and the 6-by-8-foot planting spacing that became the standard throughout the South for decades.

Wakeley began an intensive collaborative effort to understand and develop southern pine seed collection and processing, seedling nursery culture and planting technology. One of his responsibilities was to document and communicate this information to the general forestry community.

The Great Southern staff and Wakeley worked together for about 10 years. During this time, Wakeley was able to develop and compile rudimentary guidelines for producing and planting pine seedlings.

With the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, the Great Southern Lumber Co. went into receivership. About the same time, the Kisatchie National Forest and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) established the Stuart Nursery north of Alexandria near Pollock. Wakeley’s reforestation research program was moved to the Stuart Nursery.

Wakeley documented his preliminary research into a USDA Agriculture Technical Bulletin that was used extensively across the South in the reforestation programs carried out by the CCC during the 1930s. Moreover, the availability of labor from the CCC program at the Stuart Nursery allowed Wakeley and his colleagues to conduct additional large-scale research outplantings. During the nine years of the CCC program, nearly 700,000 seedlings were planted in research studies on the Palustris Experimental Forest that was established by Wakeley for this purpose.

In 1954, Phil Wakeley published the results of his reforestation research into the book, “Planting the Southern Pines.” This publication provided the information necessary to establish successful reforestation programs. It is probably the most frequently cited forestry publication in the South, and is still cited today though having been out of print for decades.

The guidelines outlined in the document became the basis for the massive reforestation effort following World War II that restored the South’s pine forests and became known as the “golden age of industrial forestry in the South.”

In the “Planting the Southern Pines,” Wakeley reported on a study he used at Bogalusa in 1926 that evaluated effects of four different seed sources on stand productivity. At 15 years in plantation age, the local source had produced more than twice as much pulpwood per acre as either of the two most distant sources. In addition, conspicuous and economically important differences in resistance to disease appeared among the different sources.

Wakeley’s photographic documentation of the 1926 study results did much to influence foresters on the importance of seed source selection and led to the formation of the Southern Forest Tree Improvement Committee (SFTIC). One of the first important undertakings of SFTIC was to establish the “Southwide Pine Seed Source Study” under his direction.

The Southwide Pine Seed Source Study was a gigantic undertaking. Thirty-three of the study’s 57 plantations were established during the winter of 1952-1953. At each plantation site, seedlings of loblolly, shortleaf, slash and longleaf pines, representing a wide geographic range of seed-collection sites, were planted. The significance of this study can be understood by its description by leading forest pathologists who called it a “gift from the gods.” They recommended that the outplantings be followed to gain understanding of the biology of insect and disease pests that could affect pine plantation performance.

Thus, Wakeley was not only responsible for the guidelines for reforesting the South’s pine forests, but his work led to the southern pine tree improvement programs that have greatly increased the productivity of these forests and enhanced their sustainability. The work of Wakeley and his colleagues has been described as, “Never in the history of forestry have so many benefited so much from the work of so few.”

Wakeley’s career covered 40 years, all with the Southern Forest Experiment Station in New Orleans. Phil is recognized across the South, as well as nationally and internationally, for his contributions to restoring the South’s forest ecosystems. His work transformed of the face of the South from one of cut-over desolation to one of highly productive pine forests.

Wakeley’s accomplishments, however, were built on the earlier efforts of Henry Hardtner of Urania Lumber Co. and William Sullivan of the Great Southern Lumber Co. The efforts of these three people, two lumbermen and Wakeley, resulted in the development of one of the region’s greatest assets — its forests.

(Dr. Jim Barnett is an emeritus scientist with the U.S. Forest Service.)

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