By Janet McConnaughey
When European settlers came to North America, fire-dependent savannas anchored by lofty pines with footlong needles covered much of what became the southern United States.
Yet by the 1990s, logging and clear-cutting for farms and development had all but eliminated longleaf pines and the grasslands beneath where hundreds of plant and animal species flourished.
Now, thanks to a pair of modern-day Johnny Appleseeds, landowners, government agencies and nonprofits are working to bring back pines named for the long needles prized by Native Americans for weaving baskets. The trees’ natural range spans the coastal plain, nine states from eastern Texas to southeast Virginia and extending into northern and central Florida.
Longleaf pines now cover as much as 7,300 square miles — and more than one-quarter of that has been planted since 2010.
“I like to say we rescued longleaf from the dustbin. I don’t think we had any idea how successful we’d be,” said Rhett Johnson, who founded The Longleaf Alliance in 1995 with another Auburn University forestry professor.
That’s not to say that the tall, straight and widely spaced pines will ever gain anything near their once vast extent. But their reach is, after centuries, expanding rather than contracting.
Scientists estimate that longleaf savannas once covered up to 143,750 square miles, an area bigger than Germany. By the 1990s, less than 3 percent remained in scattered patches. Most are in areas too wet or dry to farm.
Fire suppression played a critical role on the longleaf’s decline. Fires clear and fertilize ground that longleaf seeds must touch to sprout. Properly timed, they also spark seedlings’ first growth spurt. And, crucially for the entire ecosystem, they kill shrubs and hardwood trees that would otherwise block the sun from seedlings, grasses and wildflowers.
“The diversity of the longleaf pine system is below our knees,” sad Keith Coursey, silviculturist for about 70 percent of the 529,000-acre DeSoto National Forest in south Mississippi.
Of the 1,600 plant species found only in the Southeast, nearly 900 are only in longleaf forests, including species that trap bugs as well as fire-adapted grasses and wildflowers.