Robbie Green has a story like many who have staked their place in the quail woods of the Red Hills.
His grandfather told of rolling, sand-clay hills with flat-topped longleaf, mixed loblolly and shortleaf pine forests rich with abundant coveys of birds that supported impressive hunts around his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi.
That world slowly began to fade away as old-growth shifted into pine plantations and the timber industry became king.
Fast forward to today, and Green spends his days managing more than 11,500 acres on Tallokas and Osceola, two of Southwest Georgia’s premier hunting properties that have been managed intensively for wild quail since the mid-1900s
His role has expanded to be more than a land manager; Green sees his role as one of a tradition keeper and memory maker for the families he works with. At the same time, he remains keenly focused on historical land use and managing the land for a diversity of wildlife.
He didn’t come by wildlife management immediately as a young man. Green hunted and fished and thought the educational path was just a way to spend more time in the woods.
But he quickly developed a passion instead for where the hand of man fit into shaping and preserving the natural ecosystem.
That led him from Mississippi State University to the “funky” world of the Red Hills when he visited Tall Timbers to work with former MSU graduate students whom he had assisted on various research projects and then sought a job and a permanent place for his growing family.
All the while, he worked hard on various properties, gaining experience and following that ardor for the land while working at Mistletoe Plantation and Disston Plantation.
He started working at Osceola and Tallokas managing the properties for the Williams and Parker families in 2012, and by then had found that drive for seeing the results of working the land.
“Once you start becoming interested in something, you become a student. You develop a passion,” Green said. “It works out. You keep doing the right thing and follow that passion.”
Native ground cover and generating value from every acre
The two properties Green manages are reverse images of each other.
More than 70% of Tallokas is made up of native ground cover and longleaf pine, a relic landscape that is found in just a handful of the places where it historically flourished.
Osceola is mostly old field habitat where longleaf reforestation has become a primary goal.
Both are a mecca for wild quail, which are generally found at above two birds per acre.
Interspersed are regularly-hunted dove fields and agricultural plots that help offset costs, but the property is maintained almost exclusively with fire.
Listen to Green talk about it, and it’s easy to tell his affinity for the intact landscape but also his passion to keep it that way.
He’s been tasked with managing the properties for 200 years with the resources on hand for 100 years.
Timbering, farming, hunting and pine straw leases offset a third of the annual budget.
But one of his biggest emerging issues is balancing managing for quail, timbering and other activities efficiently to get the most out of the entirety of the properties.
He and his team call it “Going Dutch,” or compartmentalizing each aspect of the property in a location that makes the most sense so that each part can flourish akin to practices in Holland.
So often, large properties have agricultural fields interspersed throughout the woods, or there is overlap between hunting grounds and growing trees, Green said. That reduces efficiency and can tax limited resources.
The solution was to compartmentalize the different practices.
Farm where it’s appropriate and can be done at a scale that is profitable. Grow timber where it makes sense and manage and hunt for quail and other game where that makes sense.
Green is always looking for ways to improve the property in small ways that save resources but is careful to keep the landscape intact.
The Aldo Leopold quote, “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the pieces,” is a Green favorite.
“You want it to be resilient,” he said. “And the more complex it is, the more resilient.”
He’s also seeing more of an emergence in the spread of Cogon grass, Lespedeza biocolor and other sod-forming grasses which can dominate quality wildlife habitat. There’s an art to managing the need to cut timber and reducing the prevalence of invasives that can quickly take over.
“A lot of your problems with invasive are the result of over management or over disturbance,” Green said. “So, it’s finding that balance. We have to cut timber for revenue, to stay in the quail business, but that opens the door from time to time for Cogon grass or Japanese climbing fern.”
He’s also attuned to a proposed rule by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to tighten air quality restrictions on fine particle emissions, which could affect the ability to use prescribed fire.
Tall Timbers has been actively engaged at the federal level as an advocate for prescribed fire use on private and public lands. In addition, we have deployed new air quality research in Southwest Georgia and are raising funds to support science focused on smoke management and air quality.
Reduction in burning could be catastrophic economically and from an environmental standpoint, Green said.
“If we lose fire, we’re done. We’re out of the game. What are we creating? Is it going to look like something out West if we’re not using fire regularly in the Red Hills?” he said. “It’s going to create a massive problem.”
The tufts of wiregrass and mix of mature longleaf and seedlings at Tallokas are one of the largest sections of complete native ground cover in the Red Hills.
It’s a unique landscape that harkens back to Green’s childhood but is also one that is a land manager’s dream. The cost to manage Tallokas, almost exclusively using prescribed fire, is significantly lower because of the native groundcover.
“Why it never got disturbed, why it never got clear cut, I don’t know,” he said. “It didn’t, though, and thank God it didn’t because that’s what I really like. It’s so rare, it’s so special, it’s such an easy thing to manage when you do it right, when you follow the right way to do it.”
Prescribed fire wasn’t a huge topic during his schooling at Mississippi State. It was talked about, but not as a large-scale land management tool like it is in the Red Hills. That was something Green had to learn once he made it to the region working under Ray Gainey at Mistletoe Plantation.
“All it needs is fire,” he said. “And fire’s cheap versus tractors and equipment and people in the seats and the cost of fuel and all of that.”
A history of fire under the water line
Everything has its place, but it’s the historic interconnection that holds Green’s interest.
An extensive dry-down and cleanup of Brice’s Pond, a 1,000 acre duck hunting haven for the owners of Tallokas and their guests, is a chance to incorporate management of overgrown aquatic vegetation that has choked out parts of the cypress tree ringed impoundment.
That involves scraping muck from the bottom or harrowing it in to allow a clean slate for plants to grow once the water refills.
The history of Brice’s Pond, however has captured the interest of Green and researchers at Tall Timbers.
Built sometime in the mid-1800’s, the pond is positioned in the center of Tallokas proper and drains into the Okapilco Creek that runs through Tallokas. It was created to grow rice and used to generate power for a grist mill long before it was used as a duck hunting pond.
The need to incorporate aquatic management came after the old dam was strengthened and became less susceptible to blowing out in heavy rains. The pond was restored in the early 2000s, but without a way to drain periodically, duck numbers began to dwindle over the years as the pond became overgrown.
It was a point where Green saw the connections in the landscapes across the whole property.
“It became apparent to us that we had to do something, you know, something was wrong,” Green said. “The way Brice’s Pond fits into this, I think, from a sustainability standpoint is – a system, a piece of land, a piece of property – is stronger with the more parts that you can maintain and protect and add to diversity. Strength in that diversity of habitats and systems that ecological strength is what I’m looking for.”
In addition to maintaining the pond for hunting, the drawdown is revealing the history of fire on the landscape.
On the outside of the dam, the woods are a mix of pine uplands interspersed with ephemeral marshes, cypress domes and pitcher plants that have seen regular fire for eons.
The same landscape was likely present before the pond was created and logs cut for timber. He and others have found pine and cypress stumps that predate Brice’s Pond, which were cut by hand.
Tall Timbers researchers Kevin Robertson and Jean Huffman have been pulling stumps of trees hundreds of years old out of the muck to analyze them for fire scars.
It’s a link to the ecological past that has yet to be connected, but one Green hopes can help shape management of the property.
“I’m trying to piece together the mystery we don’t know. If there’s any piece of that mystery we can put together, we can probably use it to manage this thing a little better,” he said. “Understanding why things are the way they are today can help you decide to do or not do something tomorrow.”