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Sewanee assists with controlled burn to restore native pines in the Turks and Caicos Islands

Sewanee recently joined in research efforts in the tropics. 

Kevin Hiers, Sewanee’s director of environmental stewardship, and Thomas Walters, C'15, a fire-qualified ecology and biodiversity major, recently traveled to the Turks and Caicos Islands to help restore endangered pine habitats by training local staff, performing risk assessments, and conducting and planning prescribed burns for this fire-dependent species. Their travel was at the request and expense of the Royal Botanical Gardens.

The Caicos pine is a species threatened by a host of changing conditions. An invasive scale insect on this small Caribbean island chain wiped out nearly 90 percent of mature Caicos pine trees. The restoration of this pine is complicated by the fact that it needs periodic fire to grow and thrive and to reduce competition from rapidly encroaching hardwood species. Sewanee is now part of the research team, which is led by the Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew (London) and the US Forest Service, to recover the species and the unique habitat it creates.

The devastation of the Caicos pine and the associated pineyard ecosystem sparked the Caicos Pine Recovery Project (CPRP) started by the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in 2012. Michelle Sanchez, Martin Hamilton, and Marcela Corcaran are the lead scientists charged with identifying scale-resistant genetic stock, outplanting pine saplings, managing tropical hardwood competition, and managing focal conservation areas with surviving adult trees. Hiers and Walters traveled to the Turks and Caicos in December to help conduct a controlled burn in one of the few remnant patches of adult Caicos pines left in the wake of the scale insect. Without fire in the pineyards, the Caicos pines will be slowly outcompeted by dense shrubs and hardwoods. Sewanee’s involvement with the CPRP will continue this summer when Hiers and other students will return to participate in another controlled burn.