Maritime Forest Restoration - St. Simons Land Trust
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Maritime Forest Restoration

Maritime forests are narrow bands of forest that develop almost entirely on barrier islands between the back dunes and salt marsh from Florida through North Carolina and along the Gulf coast. Georgia has the largest amount of intact maritime forest along the South Atlantic coast, primarily on the barrier islands. Cannon’s Point Preserve’s forest is one of the largest remaining tracts easily accessible to the public.

Maritime forests have been heavily affected throughout the years due to human impact and natural events. It is listed as a globally rare ecosystem and the Land Trust, and its partners consider it a high priority for protection and education. There are numerous conservation efforts to protect existing forest, but no research has been conducted to learn how to restore what has been lost.

The St. Simons Land Trust, along with partners at The Nature Conservancy and Georgia Department of Natural Resources are partnering with Dr. Owen Burney (New Mexico State University) and Dr. Douglass Jacobs (Purdue University) on the first ever maritime forest restoration project. Dr. Jacobs and Dr. Burney are both originally from Georgia and studied forestry at the University of Georgia. Their careers have taken them all over the country working on hardwood restoration and we are fortunate that one of their exciting projects has brought them back “home”.

We are now six years into this groundbreaking research project with our partners. Since the acquisition of the Preserve, this restoration project has been a management priority. The project was able to get a jump start with three consecutive summers of southern pine beetle infestations resulting in the need to remove planted loblolly pines at the Preserve. Since this research has never been completed before, the Land Trust and its partners are currently focusing the restoration by planting live oaks as they are a keystone species of the maritime forest ecosystem.

Since January 2016 we have implemented 5 research phases of this project totaling 31 research plots or sites throughout the Preserve. Phase 1 was planted in January 2016 and is studying animal browse and native vegetation competition. Phases 2 and 3 were implemented in February 2017 and are looking at the shade tolerance of live oaks. The four prescriptions installed for phases 2 and 3 are control (no thin), clear cut (pine beetle sites), density reduction of 75% (heavy thin), and 50% (light thin). Phase 4 was implemented in November 2018 at the Preserve as the island research site looking at alternatives to fencing with a mainland site located at Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge. Phase 5 was implemented in 2020 examining mulch, fertilization, and planting density to facilitate site preparation and regenerations of planted live oak. The researchers will monitor soil conditions, vegetative competition, and performance of planted live oak across several growing seasons. As with the previous research phases we all expect that the results of this research will provide information directly relevant to the application of maritime forest restoration along the southeastern Atlantic Coast.

The overall objective is a comprehensive analysis of the effects of animal browse, vegetation competition, and light requirements for live oak restoration plantings in maritime forest to be accomplished in phases. Collectively, this research will provide critical baseline information regarding the ecology and management of live oak maritime forest restoration.

The Maritime Forest Restoration research at Cannon’s Point Preserve began in December 2015 when live oak seedlings were planted with partners from Purdue University, New Mexico State University, The Nature Conservancy, and Georgia Department of Natural Resources after a southern pine beetle outbreak resulted in logging at the Preserve.

The research has included seven different experiments in five different phases that have provided significant information about live oak survival.

  • Damage caused by animal browse
  • Natural vegetation competition
  • Shade tolerance
  • Alternatives to fencing
  • Mulching
  • Fertilization
  • Planting density

In October of 2018, graduate student Emily Thyroff successfully defended her masters’ thesis at Purdue University focusing on the first three phases of the restoration study. The St. Simons Land Trust is extremely proud and grateful for all of Emily’s persistence and dedication to this research project. Below are updates from Emily about Phases 1-4.

Brianne Innusa is the new graduate student from Purdue University focusing on Phase 5 of the restoration research. Below you can find updates from Phase 5 research the data Brianne has been collecting since 2020.



At Cannon’s Point Preserve there are four phases of maritime forest restoration research. Live oak is a keystone species in maritime forests, so each phase had live oak seedlings planted to start the restoration process. In total, 1,470 research trees have been planted at different plots at CPP.

Phase 1: Great seedling survival and growth after 3 growing seasons (planted in December 2015). Overall 293 out of 480 individuals survived (61%). Seedlings grew better in fenced plots compared to non-fenced plots. Removing competing vegetation helped increase growth even more for seedlings in the fenced plots. See publication HERE.

Phase 2: Again, great seedling survival and growth after 2 growing seasons (planted in February 2017). Overall 604 out of 800 individuals survived (75.5%). Greater survival in clearcut (81.5%) and heavy thin (81%) than no thin (65.5%). Light thin intermediate (73%). Seedlings grew better with more sunlight, therefore seedlings in clearcut plots had greatest growth, followed by heavy thin, light thin, and lastly no thin plots. Vegetation control increased growth in clearcut and heavy thin plots whereas vegetation control did not increase growth in light thin or no thin plots. See publication HERE.

Phase 3: Established February 2017, 40 total research saplings planted (2-year-old gallon container), 100% survival. There was substantial growth after 2 growing seasons (planted in February 2017). On average, 22 cm of height growth, 9 mm of diameter growth.

Phase 4: Established November 2018. 150 total research seedlings planted (another 150 seedlings planted at Harris Neck as a replicate) looking at alternatives to fencing. The seedlings either have tube, mesh, or no shelter to protect them from deer browse. Additionally, seedlings either received fertilizer to help with growth or did not. (data collection will be conducted in the fall of 2019). See publication HERE.



Phase 5: Established March 2020. Over 700 live oak saplings were planted in a research site on the northern end of the Cannon’s Point Preserve peninsula. This site had been previously clear-cut due to a past southern pine beetle outbreak.

The saplings needed for this phase of the research project were grown from acorns collected on St. Simons Island and included those dropped from 300-year-old live oaks at Cannon’s Point Preserve and Fort Frederica. The saplings were then grown in nurseries at New Mexico State University and carefully transported to St. Simons for planting.

Researchers will monitor soil conditions, vegetative competition, and performance of planted oaks across several growing seasons. As with the previous phases of the project at CPP, we expect that the results of this research will provide information directly relevant to the application of maritime forest restoration along the southeastern Atlantic Coast.

In May of 2022, Brianne, along with Land Trust Volunteers and Staff, and College of Coastal Georgia students, came out to Cannon’s Point Preserve for data collection. They worked to collect summer height and diameter of all 720 live oak seedlings and percent ground cover of trees, forbs, vines, and grasses underneath 5 randomly selected live oak trees per treatment. Brianne also removed 5-8 live oak leaves from the randomly selected trees to conduct nutrient analysis. Brianne explained that the overarching goal of these measurements is to see how planting density, initial mulching, and initial fertilization, impacts the growth of the live oak seedlings, the growth of the regenerating vegetation, and the nutrient acquisition of the live oak seedlings.

View Maritime Forest Restoration PowerPoint

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