With all of the new subdivisions and shopping centers going up around Newton County, it's hardly a shock that the county doesn't have the large forests it formerly did. What is surprising, however, is many of the new trees planted in the forests' wake will be dead in 10 to 15 years.
According to Harold Quigley, chief ranger for the Newton-Rockdale-Dekalb Forestry Unit, though the county had the highest number of new trees planted in the state in the 2006-2007 planting season (45,644), many of these seedlings are only ornamental trees and, as a result, will be dead in a short time.
While the new subdivision developers follow the county's ordinance by planting three trees for every house they put up, Quigley said the developers often go with whatever tree is cheapest, and the cheapest trees tend to be the ones with short life spans such as dogwoods, poplars and some willow trees.
"They're pretty for a while," said Quigley of the ornamental trees. "But when these houses start changing hands in 20 to 30 years and become an old neighborhood, there's not going to be anything there. Those trees are not lasting. We need old-growth hardwood trees. You can't tie a swing with a tire on it from a dogwood tree. You've got to have an oak to do that."
Quigley told the Newton County Board of Commissioners these concerns at their Tuesday night board meeting when he presented the Newton-Rockdale-Dekalb Forestry Unit's annual report.
Quigley recommend amending the county ordinance to require that more hardwood trees such as oaks and maple trees be planted in new developments.
"It's a great idea. It makes perfect sense," Quigley said. "It's just not going to look pretty with no trees anywhere."
According to Quigley, the county's tree population has decreased from approximately 150,000 forested acres 20 years ago to 98,200 forested acres today.
Quigley also reported that from July of 2006 to June of 2007 there were 55 wildfires in Newton County which burned a total of 221.74 acres.
According to the Forestry Unit's annual report, 22 of the year's wildfires were caused by the burning of debris. The average size of a wildfire during the year was 4.3 acres.
While Quigley described the 55 wildfires as an average number for Newton County, he predicted the county would see an above-average number of wildfires in the next year as a result of the recent extreme drought.
"Things are burning that wouldn't normally burn," Quigley said.
Future wildfires in the county will likely damage buildings and other structures Quigley said.
"Every fire we have is going to involve a structure," Quigley said. "We're getting so crowded. It's inevitable that we're going to lose a home to a wildfire, they pack them in so tight."
In addition Quigley said owners of private forests are not maintaining their trees as they used to.
"If you're growing the trees for profit which is what used to happen, you would do burnings (prescribed burns) every three years to control hardwood which helps the trees grow better," Quigley said. "That's going away; there're only three tree farms left in Newton County. Everything else has been clear cut."
Quigley recommended forest owners perform prescribed burns on their forests once every three years in order to clear away the pine straw which lies on the forest floor and becomes dried out. The huge conflagrations seen in South Georgia earlier this year were largely the result of an excess of dried pine straw on the ground he said.
According to Quigley's report, forestry unit personnel issued 6,253 burning permits in Newton County over the course of the year. A total of 274 prescribed burns took place during the year that cleared 2,313 acres.
This year, however, the forestry unit will no longer issue annual burn permits by order of Gov. Sonny Perdue. Instead only daily burn permits will be issued.
"We're going to have to control on a daily basis how much smoke we're putting into the atmosphere," Quigley said.