Longleaf Pine Forests in the South, Past and Future

Young stand of longleaf pine trees. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

A new report from the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) describes the history and current condition of longleaf pine in the southern United States. Co-authored by researchers from the SRS Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) and Longleaf Pine Ecosystems units, findings from the report provide a solid baseline of information that land and natural resource managers can use in the future to assess the impact of ongoing longleaf pine forest restoration activities.

Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris Mill.) was once one of the most ecologically important tree species in the southern United States, with longleaf pine forests spanning an estimated 92 million acres in a range that stretched from southwest Virginia to eastern Texas. Today, even though there’s a lot of interest longleaf pine forest ecosystems, only 4.3 million acres of longleaf pine forests remain, with much of this acreage in poor or degraded condition. “The cumulative impacts of three centuries of changing land use from the time of European settlement resulted in the dramatic decline of these forests,” says Chris Oswalt, FIA research forester and primary author of the report. “They’ve become one of the most endangered ecosystems in the United States.”

The authors used historical and contemporary FIA data to present estimated changes to southern longleaf pine forests, implications for the conservation of the species, and suggestions for future research. Though the data show that the population of longleaf pine trees in the South declined over the past four decades, findings in the report point towards potential improvement. For example:

  • the number of longleaf pine saplings has been increasing;
  • increasing numbers of longleaf pine/oak acres represent opportunities for restoration to longleaf pine forests; and
  • in some areas of the longleaf pine range young stands are developing to aid replacement of those lost.

“Significant challenges to expanding longleaf pine dominated forests in their former range certainly exist,” says Oswalt. “However, with targeted research and conservation efforts, these forests could thrive again across the South.”

The SRS FIA program has also partnered with the Longleaf Partnership Councilpart of Americas Longleaf Restoration Initiative (ALRI), to evaluate the progress of restoration activities across the South through a survey developed by state coordination teams under the leadership of the Forest Service, the Southern Group of State Foresters, the National Resources Conservation Service, and state conservation agencies.

“There’s a lot of momentum and new synergies right now as a result of partnership efforts through the ALRI,” says Vernon Compton, Longleaf Alliance member and current chair of the Longleaf Partnership Council. “The Council’s evaluation of recent FIA data points toward positive improvements that show slight net increases in overall longleaf acreages within the past decade due to the efforts of the many partners involved in longleaf pine restoration. The assessments in this new SRS report and further FIA-based evaluations will help further ALRI goals to restore longleaf pine foretst to their former range.”

Access the full text of the report, History and Current Condition of Longleaf Pine in the Southern United States.

For more information, email Chris Oswalt at coswalt@fs.fed.us.

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