One of the most important tools that land managers use to combat the loss of sandhill is prescribed burning. The prescribed fires at Fort Cooper State Park mimic those that would have naturally occurred, killing invading oaks and creating open areas for the longleaf pines, wiregrass and wildflowers to flourish. Plants and animals in sandhill are adapted to fire and without frequent fires they will, and have, disappeared. There are many rare and threatened species found here, including the Sherman’s fox squirrel, red-cockaded woodpeckers, eastern indigo snakes and gopher tortoises.
As you walk the Sandhill Loop Trail in Fort Cooper State Park, you can see the steps to health - restoration in progress. You may notice trees with rings cut in the trunk. This is called girdling and removes species that don’t belong. You may also see where smaller, invading oaks have been mowed or cut down to allow sunlight to reach the native groundcover. If you are lucky, you may happen to visit the park right after a prescribed burn to see the beneficial effect this has on the landscape. Be sure to visit back a few months later - the new growth and open vistas are spectacular.
For many decades, sandhill has suffered from another affliction- development. Naturally high and dry, it’s ideal for agriculture and the placement of houses. It is vital that we continue to protect and restore these last remaining areas of sandhill habitat, because once gone we will lose an important piece of our heritage. Places like Fort Cooper State Park provide opportunities for visitors to come and enjoy this special habitat forever.