Maintaining A Tradition With Proper Forestland Management

In the southern United States, families tend to cherish longstanding traditions and maintain a commitment to customs and values that pass from generation to generation. The McGowin family of Chapman, Ala., is no exception. For more than 100 years, family members have worked diligently to create and manage a legacy of forestland ownership and timber operations.

In 1905, family patriarch James Greeley McGowin and other family members purchased the W. T. Smith Lumber Company in Chapman. Over a period of more than six decades, successive generations of McGowins presided over the company's growth, watching the firm become one of the largest lumber manufacturers east of the Mississippi. When the McGowins finally sold the company in 1965, they had established a 200,000-acre tree farm employing more than 500 people – almost the entire population of Chapman. Today, McGowin's grandson, Earl Mason McGowin, Jr., owns and continues to care for around 2,000 acres of the family's original 200,000-acre tree farm.

Love for the Land… and Its Resources

As a young boy, McGowin developed what would become a lifelong interest in wildlife and hunting. It began with a trip to Sedgefi eld Plantation, a famed 13,000-acre preserve established in Alabama by appliance magnate L.B. Maytag. On the legendary property, McGowin says his father instilled a passion for pursuing wild turkey and quail.

It's a passion that continues today, particularly in the sport of quail hunting. In fact, McGowin now makes managing quail habitat a key priority on his family's acreage. As recently as 10 years ago, the McGowin family property served as home to a healthy quail population – housing between 16 and 18 coveys of quail. However, over the past several years, the number of quail on the McGowin property has declined dramatically – to less than four coveys. McGowin found this decline troubling, and worked to determine its cause – conducting research in wildlife publications and consulting with wildlife experts.

McGowin discovered that the quail decline stemmed largely from increasingly poor quail habitat conditions, due largely to a problem common in the South – the infestation of undesirable hardwood species such as sweetgum and red maple, which create a thick understory in pine stands. A thick forest understory can steal nutrients, moisture and sunlight from grasses, forbs and legumes, which produce abundant fl owers that benefi t many insect species necessary for quail survival. In addition, coveys prefer to nest in grass and shrub communities and avoid the thick understory, which makes mobility diffi cult for newborn quail.

As a successful forest landowner, McGowin understood the importance of proactively managing his pine stands to remove invasive hardwood vegetation that can inhibit pine tree survival and growth. But further exploration led McGowin to discover that, while he had been proactively managing his pine stands through prescribed fi re and thinning, these practices alone were not enough to ensure excellent quail habitat. In fact, in many cases, they were leading to habitat decline.

Experts pointed out that, prior to conducting a burn on his pine stand, there might be as many as 1,000 sweetgum stems per acre. Two to three years later, after the burn, the same stand would contain 5,000 sweetgum stems per acre – or fi ve times the original level. Both burning and thinning actually caused the understory to multiply, completely contrary to McGowin's intended outcome. When McGowin asked why this occurred, he learned that hardwood species like sweetgum can actually sprout more vigorously from the root crown following a fi re or thinning than prior to these activities.

Working to Restore Native Habitat

Looking for a better solution than burning and mechanical thinning to provide long-term control of the hardwood understory, McGowin met with BetterVM Sales Specialist, Michelle Isenberg. Isenberg helped McGowin understand the multidimensional aspects of managing his pine forest; specifi cally that controlling competitive vegetation can signifi cantly increase crop-tree growth rates while also creating the proper conditions for benefi cial wildlife habitat.

Isenberg introduced McGowin to a management approach known as Quality Vegetation Management™ (QVM). This practice involves applying a Smart Herbicide™ such as Arsenal® herbicide Applicators Concentrate (Arsenal AC) or Chopper® herbicide in the fall, followed by a prescribed burn in the spring to remove the thick litter layer. Through the combination of these techniques, QVM improves pine tree growth and controls undesirable plant species, encouraging the growth of desirable vegetation.

Arsenal AC and Chopper provide intelligent vegetation control by only affecting enzymes found in plants. They work by penetrating and moving throughout undesirable plants, such as sweetgum, killing them at their roots. One treatment can suppress hardwood growth for 10 years or more.

McGowin learned that a QVM approach not only controls the hardwood brush, but also helps make soil conditions conducive to the natural establishment of high-quality, shade-intolerant plants, such as legumes and other forbs.

“We've found that applying Arsenal AC or Chopper to the understory in combination with controlled burns is really providing a long-term return on investment,” said McGowin, “both in terms of improving wildlife abundance and controlling undesirable weeds and brush.”

Using Smart Herbicides to Strengthen Control

In 2002, McGowin decided to put the QVM approach into practice. In September 2002, he treated approximately 200 pine stand acres with Arsenal AC at 16 ounces per acre. Then in February, he applied a cool season burn in the treated stands in a checkerboard format.

The process involved burning one 60- to 80-acre pine stand and leaving the adjacent 60- to 80-acre stand untouched to create a diverse habitat that can also provide cover for wildlife to elude predators. In March 2003, he concluded the QVM approach with a mechanical thinning to clear stumps and excess vegetation.

Using Multiple Methods to Restore Nature's Natural Cycle

Today, McGowin says his efforts are beginning to pay off. “We're very happy to have achieved a clean understory, which is creating an environment that improves the growth of natural grasses and forbs – which deer and quail love.”

McGowin has been so pleased with the QVM approach that he has put the practice into play on an annual basis to improve the wildlife habitat all across his property.

“Applying herbicides helped control the hardwood brush competing with desirable plants and pine trees,” McGowin said. “The sweetgum is virtually gone, and we've completely eliminated red maple. But the plants that we're really trying to restore – partridge pea, other legumes and blackberry – have all come back wonderfully.”

Quail and More

By taking the right approach toward forestland, setting the right objectives and employing the right practices, landowners can increase the amount of desirable wildlife on their property and realize the full value of their forestland.

And as Southern landowners like McGowin seek to maintain family customs and values such as hunting, many have begun to view proactive forestland management with herbicide use as a positive way to create and manage a forestland legacy. It's a legacy that not only can provide optimal quail habitat, but also can maximize the recreational and fi nancial potential of the forestland for future generations.

“Our vegetation management efforts have created an ideal environment for quail,” McGowin said. “I'm confi dent we'll start seeing an increase in quail in the near future, as existing populations take advantage of the wonderful habitat we've created.”

For more information on how Smart Herbicides can improve your forestland, call 1-800-545-9525, or visit