Case Study: Pebble Hill Plantation

 

Pebble Hill Plantation sits on a quiet stretch of flat country road in Thomasville, Georgia. Purchased in the late 1800s by a wealthy northern industrialist as a winter retreat for his daughter, the sprawling estate includes a museum, several historical buildings, and extensive grounds. Its picturesque beauty is much in demand for storybook style weddings.

Pebble Hill also includes roughly 3,000 acres of healthy, working forest under the care of forester Alan Tucker. Much of that land is dominated by stands of mature longleaf pine, a species that once dominated much of the southeastern landscape. For those that know the history of timber in the south, it’s no surprise that these tall, straight trees hide a reminder of the time before sustainable management of forest resources was common practice: stumps.

Longleaf is one of a limited number of pine species that develop a rosin-rich heart that doesn’t decay over time. The outer bark and sap wood rot away, leaving hard, dense stumps anchored by unusually thick and long taproots. These stumps are a part of the ecosystem and provide habitat for a number of small forest species. However, because the stumps at Pebble Hill are left from an old clear cut, there are far more of them than is natural.

“We were having smoke issues with residual stumps from our old growth timber,” says Tucker. The flammable rosin could smolder for days, sending thick black smoke wafting over the area. “We’re on a major highway, so I came up with the idea of harvesting some of these old growth stumps.”

Fire is vital to longleaf forest health, so forgoing burns isn’t an option. Tucker visited a couple of active stumping operations to see whether modern extraction methods would be a viable option for Pebble Hill.

“The number one reason that we tried it was the new methods,” he says.

In earlier years, stumpers would have come along a few years after an area had been clearcut and push stumps out of the ground with bulldozers, uprooting them with brute force. They’d have cleaned the stumps out and left the land ready for site prep for another crop of trees.  Now, agile trackhoe excavators are equipped with shear head that snips off the taproot, which reduces disruption. Contractors easily avoid damaging trees in a well-managed stand.

Tucker took the idea to the Board of Directors, who had their own concerns about potential effects on wildlife and the environment. He consulted experts from around the region, including the Longleaf Alliance and Tall Timbers Research Station, and looked for any indicators that harvesting the stumps would have a negative effect on the land.

He says he didn’t find the unqualified reassurance he hoped for at first, but didn’t find any evidence of potential harm either.

“We finally decided to give it a try because of our smoke management issues and to to try relieve some of our equipment damage.” That rosin heart wreaks havoc on mowing and chopping equipment, and they were spending time and money on repairs. He hoped removing some old growth stumps could mitigate that cost and aggravation.

That was four years ago, and stumpers have worked from January to June at Pebble Hill Plantation each year since then.

“It has proven to be very good from an environmental standpoint,” he says. “This is thinning operations – we’re not harvesting behind a clearcut.” The stumpers come in after a prescribed burn in order to locate the stumps, but the way that the rotation goes, sometimes the area has already started to fill with grasses when stumpers get there. Because of that, he estimates anywhere from 25-50% of the stumps in a stand are left, and Tucker thinks that’s part of what makes it work for them. The small creatures who shelter in stumps have plenty of habitat left.

He says their other concern for the land was about holes not being filled properly. “That has been alleviated, mainly because of the good quality of the work. I’m going to attribute that to Tom Crook, the procurement forester with Pinova, and Tim Boyette, the guy that does our work. He’s an unbelievably good contractor.”

Tucker has been so satisfied with Pinova that he wants to host the company at Pebble Hill for an educational program on stump harvesting for other area landowners.

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