What did Alabama’s landscapes look like in 1819? Hint: think Kansas with prairies and bamboo.

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Painting by contemporary artist Philip Juras of  William Bartram’s 1775 description of Alabama’s Black Belt Prairie near Montgomery. www.philipjuras.com

I’ve got a confession to make.

As a native Alabamian, who has worked in conservation for more than three decades, I never knew there were millions of acres of grasslands and prairies in Alabama two centuries ago.

Much of our state’s landscape looked more like the prairies and savannas of Illinois (the Prairie State) Kansas and Nebraska than the thickets of forests we see now. Although Alabama had some of the most diverse forests and wetlands anywhere in the South, the state was a complicated mosaic, with as much prairie and savanna as forests. In fact, notably, the state had far more species of grasses than all the midwestern prairies combined.

200 Years of Change

What did Alabama’s natural landscapes look like in 1819, the year it was accepted into the Union? How much has the state’s land and rivers changed over the past 200 years? What is being done to restore Alabama’s lost landscapes?

In commemoration of Alabama’s Bicentennial, we will examine these three questions and more in a three-part series about Alabama’s changing landscapes.

The Myth of an Unbroken Forest

It is one story that makes Dwayne Estes, executive director of the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (SGI) and professor of botany at Austin Peay State University – “cringe.”

For decades, schoolchildren have been taught that when the first Europeans arrived on the Eastern coast of North America, the entire continent east of the Great Plains was covered in an unbroken forest.

View of an unbroken forest from Cheaha State Park. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

A story that a squirrel could jump from tree to tree from the East Coast to the Mississippi River and never touch the ground has been propagated time and time again in our history books.

Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

“It is the myth of an unbroken forest and the story of the squirrel that makes it hard for people to believe grasslands and prairie covered the east and south, especially in Alabama,” Estes observed in an interview with Bham Now.

“Today, when I give presentations about grasslands, on average 60-80 percent of the audience have heard the squirrel story in their history classes growing up.”

As a result, we assume Alabama has always been covered in thick forests like today, continuously, cut over and re-grown for generations.

We are wrong.

Millions of Acres of Prairies, Savannas and Open Grassy Woodlands

What did Alabama look like in 1819? Along with Estes, we asked “landscape detectives” renowned naturalist Bill Finch and Birmingham-Southern professor and ecologist Scot Duncan, author of South Wonder, Alabama’s Surprising Biodiversity, to provide us a glimpse of what Alabama actually looked like when it entered statehood.

Splinter Hill Bog in South Alabama, a habitat filled with pitcher plants and a longleaf pine forest. Photo courtesy of the Nature Conservancy

According to Estes, millions of acres, including more than half of Alabama was in some kind of grassland (including prairie, savanna, glades, dunes), open grassy wetlands, or open woodlands underlain by a carpet of grasses and wildflowers. Places in North Alabama such as Athens, Moulton and Huntsville were in regions called “barrens” and originally were as much prairie towns as some towns in Kansas or Oklahoma.

“When we think of Alabama as a forest, it wasn’t a forest as we think of today,” explained Finch. “Large areas weren’t forests at all. They were savannas which were trees with grasslands underneath. Many of these grasses grew under longleaf, slash and shortleaf pine, which were abundant in the state. The big savannas were so vast you could ride a team of horses and wagon through most of Alabama at a gallop.”

Shortly after 1819, most of the savannas or prairies were transformed into farms and were lost before they could be painted, photographed, illustrated or described by some of the early naturalists that came into Alabama. Most don’t even realize they existed. What remains today are small remnants, a few dozen acres of grasslands and prairie here and there. Just scraps.

“In the case of the prairies in the Tennessee Valley of North Alabama, almost nothing remains. They likely were gone by 1850 because they were so easily converted to cotton fields. They’ve been gone so long they’ve escaped our collective memory as a society,” says Estes.

Alabama’s Lost Worlds

A modern day Alabamian would not only be surprised by the lost prairies, but there were other natural treasures that disappeared as well.

All three of our natural landscape detectives concur that Alabama in 1819 would be unrecognizable today. Fire, whether sparked by lightning or used by Native Americans, maintained the open landscape, and created fire-adapted forests, savannas and unique Alabama ecosystems.

Fire, used by Native Americans played a major role shaping Alabama’s 1819 landscape. As seen in the photo, fire is still used today as a forest management tool. Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy for Alabama

Along with the lost savannas and prairies, there were several additional “lost worlds” two centuries ago that are nearly completely gone in Alabama.

Canebrake – a Bamboo Forest

Exotic bamboo from Asia grown in Prattville Alabama’s Wilderness Forest. Photo from Travel Alabama

Can you imagine today, looking out upon the Alabama landscape and seeing a bamboo forest?

“There was a magnificent feature that was pervasive throughout the state and they called it the canebrake. You don’t understand Alabama, if you don’t understand the canebrake,” remarked Bill Finch. The term “brake” is an old European word for clearing. It means a place with little forest, a land covered in cane. There are three species of bamboo or what we call cane in Alabama, that are similar Asian bamboo. Two hundred years ago, it was established throughout the entire state and was found in every county.

It is speculated that several creatures may have been dependent on the canebrake including Bachman’s warbler, which is likely extinct, and the Carolina parakeet, which is extinct.

“Can you imagine having our own parakeets in Alabama?,” added Finch.

Once Alabama became a state much of the canebrake and its rich soils were transformed into the Cotton Kingdom between 1820 to 1860.

Beavers Engineering Meadows

Beaver working in an Alabama stream. Photo from Outdoor Alabama

Today, our landscape detectives can lead us to portions of streams that have been recently transformed into incredible meadow-like areas with beautiful flowers, grasses and very few trees. Such open, natural habitats are now quite rare in Alabama. Why are these meadows here? It is the beavers – they are back.

Birmingham Southern’s Duncan declared, “Beavers love Alabama. They were once in most of our creeks. They played a huge role in creating habitats that we have completely forgotten. Back in the early 1800s, when the creeks and streams flowed freely, beavers would dam them to form shallow ponds with meadows at their margin. These open habitats supported species you cannot find in a shady forest or a free-flowing stream.”

Back before Alabama was visited by fur-trappers and settled by American colonists, beaver meadows were grazed by deer, elk, buffalo and others. Their disappearance due to trapping and hunting was massive. But, thankfully, beavers are making a comeback.

Pine Woodlands and Savannas

Another lost world in Alabama from 200 years ago were the pine savannas and woodlands. This ecosystem has been extensively reviewed by Reed Noss, author of Forgotten Grasslands of the South. Noss points out that while they are dominated by pines, they are really more akin to grasslands because of their super diverse ground layer which supports the richest array of sun-loving grasses and wildflowers of any ecosystem in North America north of the Tropics. They are in essence “treed grasslands.”

Heavily influenced by fire, the longleaf pine ecosystem, for example, was dominant in many parts of South Alabama. Today, most of our original longleaf ecosystems are gone – up to 95%, but there are major efforts to bring it back.

Surprisingly, according to the Southeastern Grassland Initiative, large sections of the surface of Sand and Lookout Mountains had shortleaf pine savannas and woodlands with grasses under them in the early 1800s too.

Remembering Native Americans role on the landscape

Photo from the Moundville Archeological Park and Museum Facebook page

Lost also to Alabama was a millennia old way of life.

Duncan added, “We also need to talk about the role indigenous people played in the landscape before 1819. For over three centuries, and through a vile combination of diseases, violence, and forced exile, we decimated their populations and took away their lands. The Southeast and Alabama wasn’t a wild, untamed land ready for the taking, it had been under active management for at least 15,000 years. Floodplains and valleys had been cultivated for maize, forests were managed like orchards for nuts and fruits, and fire was used to keep the landscape open.”

In fact, according to one Native American scholar, the word Alabama in Choctaw translates to “thicket clearer.”

Duncan concludes, “What happened to Native Americans, their culture, and the landscape was nothing short of apocalyptic.”

Alabama – biodiversity

Despite the disappearance of the prairies, meadows and canebrake over a short 40 years between 1820-1860, Alabama remains one of the most biodiverse states in the United States and regions of the world. In 2015, the Critical Ecosystem Parntership Fund recognized about two-thirds of Alabama as part of the world’s newest and 36th global biodiversity hotspot.

Bill Finch notes that Alabama today is still the center of tree diversity nationally, with more species of trees generally and more species of oaks and magnolias than any other state — and more species of hickories than anyplace else in the world.

“The unusual way all of this fits together is what made Alabama landscapes unique in North America, and unusually rich compared to most places in the temperate world,” said Finch.

In our next installment, we will explore the landscape changes that occurred in Alabama over the following 160 years. What replaced the prairies? How did we change our riverine system from free-flowing rivers to lakes? What kind of impact has urban sprawl had on our landscape?

Join us on this 200 year journey.

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Author: Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.