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Forests growing back in U.S. face man-made tests

Here in Piney Grove, the new forest is about 110 years old now. Wind whooshes through eight-story loblolly pines, and there are black bears and bobcats and red-cockaded woodpeckers -- an endangered species with a call like a rubber ducky with a head cold.

The signs of human habitation already look ancient: the hole of an old church cellar, earthen walls in the woods. But the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit group that bought this forest in 1999, still sees a man-made problem here.

To fix this forest, they need to set it on fire.

"It's counterintuitive, isn't it?" said Brian van Eerden, a Nature Conservancy official. Around him, on one recent afternoon, employees and volunteers were using "drip torches" to dribble out flaming gasoline and diesel fuel onto the forest floor, setting thigh-high fires that turned the underbrush into char. "Black is good," van Eerden said.

The fires, officials said, are for the woodpeckers.

The birds evolved to live in forests swept by fires that burned out undergrowth, which blocks the birds' flight. Now, in an age when forest fires bring fire departments, the Nature Conservancy has to set them itself, or the birds' habitat might disappear.

"We'll always have to do fire" for this kind of habitat, said Sam Lindblom, a "fire manager" for the conservancy.

In other places, scientists face a different problem: not too few of an animal, but too many.

As the Eastern forest vanished, white-tailed deer declined with it: In 1927, hunters only killed five deer in Maryland. But, with the aid of state restocking programs, they came back. Last year, Maryland hunters killed 100,663.

Now, the deer eat almost everything, and almost nothing eats them. In a Smithsonian Institution-owned forest near Front Royal, Va., their grazing kills off most of the young trees before they can grow tall enough to escape.

Now, when the tall trees age and fall, there may be no next generation to shoot up in their place.

"Right now, the [deer] are hunted by people and Volvos," said William J. McShea, a wildlife ecologist at the Smithsonian Institution. Because of that, he said, "there's no future to that forest. It's like it's died, but it doesn't know it yet."

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