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Longleaf pine forests are one of North America’s most endangered ecosystems. Once covering 90 million acres from Virginia to Texas, this biologically rich habitat has been reduced to about three million acres.

And when you hear this, you might think of timber harvesters, once and still major players in Georgia’s agricultural economy, as villains. They destroyed the forests. They exploited “forever resources” for “temporary gains.”

And Albert Way, an environmental historian at Kennesaw State University, would agree with you to a certain degree. But he’d also point you to the wood that built the Brooklyn Bridge. And he’d point you to the wooden ships and railroad ties that built America in the 19th Century.

“No wood species would be more important than longleaf pine in this period of American growth,” he says of the connection between wood and wealth. “Much like its celebrated peers, steel and oil, longleaf pine was a foundational material of the industrial age.”

Way presented new research into this topic at the Ossabaw Island Foundation’s “Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture” symposium earlier this year. The February event drew hundreds of people to learn more about the intersection of humans and nature on Georgia’s coast.

Way talked about the ruthless deforestation that took place on Georgia’s coastal plain from 1880 to the 1920. But he also took a fresh look at the men who built empires out of Georgia timber. He focused on a central paradox of Southern environmental history.

“The timbers are ecological beings, fire-dependent keystones in this web of life,” he says. “[They’re also] economic beings, structural pillars in a web of granite, brick and steel.”

Many interesting tidbits populate Way’s presentation. Most of them focus on the 19th Century timber impresario William Dodge. At one time, his Georgia Land and Lumber Company owned just about everything between the Oconee and Ocmulgee Rivers.

This woody empire dripped pine gum down newly built railroads to explode Brunswick’s population and spur new towns all the way to Macon. It floated logs down the Altamaha River to make Darien the timer capital of world with one of the country’s largest banks.

Way dug deep into the historical records to get into the minds of both the men who took rapaciously from the land and those who warned of a coming “timber famine” that would wreck the country if not well-managed. The legacy of both camps lives on with us today.

“We lament the forest’s destruction while simultaneously celebrating the raw material and its finished products,” he says. “The Brooklyn Bridge is a cultural, technological and economic symbol of greatness. But the stumps remaining in the coastal plain are ruins.”

It’s always good to acknowledge where our wealth comes from as a nation. And Way does an excellent job making that connection in coastal Georgia. This talk dovetails nicely with others presented at the “Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture” symposium.

I’ll get to them as the months roll on here at Savannah Podcast. I’m presenting one talk from this symposium each month. If you’d like to listen to the ones that I’ve produced so far, click on this link. They are musts for anyone interested in our history and landscape.