Reference conditions for old-growth pine forests in the Upper West Gulf Coastal Plain
Ecosystem restoration has become an important component of forest management. especially on public lands. However, determination of manageable reference conditions has lagged behind the interest. This paper presents a case study from pine-dominated forests in the Upper West Gulf Coastal Plain (UWGCP), with special emphasis on southern Arkansas. Decades of forest management, fire exclusion, exotic species invasion, and other ecological changes have converted the small remnants of mature shortleaf (Pinus echinata Mill.) and loblolly pine (Pinus taeda L.) stands into ineffectual models for restoring presettlement-like conditions. However, sufficient information can be gathered from available references to more reliably describe the boundaries of the desired reference environment. Early explorer accounts, maps, survey records, historical trade and technical publications, and modern scientific journals were consulted to reconstruct presettlement (pre-1900) forest conditions for pine-dominated landscapes of the UWGCP. On average, virgin UWGCP pine forests had considerably more shortleaf pine (especially in the uplands) than contemporary natural stands, with relatively low basal area and standing volume concentrated in large trees. Presettlement pine timber also had less uniform structural and spatial patterns than modern examples of mature pine. Assuming most of the critical processes are still present, it appears possible to recreate the compositional and structural attributes of virgin pine forests.