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.
A wide diversity of remarkable animals calls longleaf pine flatwoods and sandhills habitats home. Here, discover species special to naturalist Dirk Stevenson. He has spent much of his life in the Coastal Plain of the southeastern United States wading swamps and exploring pine landscapes in his field studies of imperiled and declining amphibians, reptiles and insects.
Here, Dirk authors accounts of the deep-digging gopher tortoise, a denizen of longleaf sandhills and a keystone species; and the gopher frog and the eastern indigo snake, which have developed intimate associations within the burrows of the tortoise. Discover the secretive frosted flatwoods salamander, an amphibian of mesic longleaf pine savannas, and take a closer look at the odd Say’s spiketail dragonfly. The nymphs of this predatory insect live in mucky springs while the adults hunt for wasps and bees in longleaf pine – turkey oak sandhills. And last is the industrious and comical southeastern pocket gopher, whose numerous mounds can be seen from space.
By Beth Gavrilles
The longleaf pine forests of the southeastern U.S. depend on frequent fire to maintain their structure and the diversity of plants and animals they support. New research from the University of Georgia has found that fire may be playing another, unexpected role: releasing excessive nitrogen that appears to have accumulated as a legacy of prior land use.
“It was not what we were expecting,” said senior author Nina Wurzburger, an associate professor in the Odum School of Ecology. “We first were wondering whether there was enough nitrogen fixation to balance nitrogen losses from fire, and now our hypothesis is that fire might be necessary to remove excess nitrogen from these ecosystems. We basically turned the question on its head.”
“We came to the conclusion that fire might be getting rid of excess nitrogen,” said Wurzburger. “Most of the longleaf pine that exists today has been planted, and those areas have legacy effects of agriculture or grazing or fire exclusion. Our research is suggesting that all those things, and nitrogen deposition too, have put too much nitrogen in the ecosystem. So maybe we should think about fire as a management tool to remove nitrogen that accumulated historically, and to help return these ecosystems to their natural nitrogen-poor state.”
Understanding the interacting role of fire and historical disturbances in longleaf ecosystems is important for several reasons, including carbon sequestration and the conservation of biodiversity: longleaf savannas can contain more than 40 species of plants in a square meter, and harbor a number of rare species of plants and animals, including the federally endangered red cockaded woodpecker.
By Peter Coutu
Integral to Virginia’s history, the pine once dominated most of the region.
For decades, though, the longleaf has been struggling to survive in an environment no longer suited for it. The pine, which thrives under regular burn cycles, stopped getting the necessary fire treatment when earlier residents started extinguishing the blazes that would have killed off competition. And timber companies harvested the longleaf until the tree largely vanished.
At the turn of the century, fewer than 200 such mature conifers remained in Virginia.
In turn, the population of red-cockaded woodpeckers plummeted with the loss of that habitat. Now federally endangered, one could just about count the remaining birds in the state on two hands.
But a group of conservationists from multiple agencies are on a mission to save the state’s so-called “Founding Forest” and with it, the state’s most scarce bird.
By Jennifer Moore Myers
In 1989, South Carolina’s Francis Marion National Forest lost close to a third of its pine and hardwood trees to Hurricane Hugo. USDA Forest Service land managers have spent the last thirty years recovering from that disturbance and working to meet the state’s growing needs for clean water, forest products, recreation areas, and wildlife habitat.
To that end, the Francis Marion adopted a new forest plan in 2017 focused upon restoring longleaf pine, the once-dominant southern species, across 33,000 acres of national forest lands.
This goal and the management work to implement it are based on a body of experimental research about forest ecology and hydrology — much of it conducted on the Santee Experimental Forest.
The Santee sits on the west side of the Francis Marion. Established in 1937, it’s a 6,100-acre living laboratory that has hosted many long-term studies on the effects of fire, hurricanes, and forest management practices on tree growth, streamflow, and wildlife communities.
SRS scientists and national forest managers have teamed up to study the impacts of replacing existing loblolly pine stands with longleaf pine.
Earlier, fine-scale studies suggest that water yield from longleaf pine landscapes may be greater than that from loblolly pine or mixed pine and hardwood stands due to differences in forest structure and composition between the two pine environments.
“Longleaf pine restoration is a priority for the Southern Region of the National Forest System,” says research soil scientist Carl Trettin. “This project is an opportunity to advance the current science on longleaf restoration to broader scales as well as support the Region and the Forest.”
By Matthew Wills
The dense, resin-saturated, rot-resistant timber of the longleaf pine helped build up U.S. cities. But most of the native stands have already been logged.
If you’ve ever been to Brooklyn Bridge Park, you may have seen the sturdy, wooden-beamed benches facing the harbor. The wood for the benches was salvaged from the old National Cold Storage Warehouse complex, which was demolished for the construction of the park. It timber comes from the longleaf pine, Pinus palustris, some of which was cut in the decades before 1900. The trees themselves might have been up to five centuries old when they were felled.
The Brooklyn Bridge itself had caissons—essentially enormous, upside down boxes—made of longleaf pine. The foundations of the bridge’s two towers were excavated by men working inside these caissons on the bottom of the East River. Once the excavation was done—at terrible human cost, due to caisson’s disease, AKA decompression sickness—the caissons were filled in to form the frames of the foundations of the bridge.
Even dead, the dense, resin-saturated, rot-resistant timber of longleaf pine survives a very long time. Many cities in the U.S. have nineteenth-century buildings that were built with the “good bones” of longleaf pine. They’re harvested to this day, but not in the volume they once were. There’s a simple reason for that: There just aren’t that many of them anymore.
Geographers Garrett C. Smith, Mark W. Patterson, and Harold R. Trendell track the demise of the longleaf ecosystem. When Europeans arrived in the southeast, the pines covered the coast plain from what is now the Virginia/North Carolina border into Florida and along the Gulf Coast. Estimates of the total size of this pine savannah range from 60 to 147 million acres. There are far fewer of the trees now, and only a tiny proportion of the remnant is old growth. An example: in 1607, there was an estimated one million acres of longleaf pine in Virginia alone; in 2005, there were some 200 individual trees.
How do you protect some of the most endangered forest habitats in the United States? The answer may lie with a critter that often lives beneath that forest: a burrowing species called the gopher tortoise.
Gopher tortoises, which are listed as threatened by the federal government, are native to the Southeastern United States, where they have made their home in a unique, sandy ecosystem called the longleaf pine forest. These forests, which once covered more than 90 million acres across the Southeast, have all but disappeared. Today, after more than 200 years of development, only about 3 percent of historic longleaf pine forests remain.
Most of the longleaf forest that still stands—including more than 80 percent of gopher tortoise habitat—exists on privately held lands. To help both species, the U.S. Department of Agriculture this month launched a strategy to provide landowners with the tools and resources they need to restore and enhance their pine forests.