Longing for Longleaf Pine

USDA Forest Service research supports restoration efforts

This longleaf pine woodland in South Carolina hints at what used to be the dominant forest of the southeastern coastal plain. Photo by Randy Tate, The Longleaf Alliance.

In the early 1800s, longleaf pine-dominated forests stretched from eastern Texas to southern Virginia and south into central Florida. These forests covered about 90 million acres — nearly the size of the state of Montana.

The dense, tightly grained wood from these forests built some of America’s great cities and railroads. Vast sections were cleared for crops, grazing, and human development, while fire suppression and feral hogs degraded other longleaf areas.

Today, what once covered 90 million acres is less than 5 million acres, which would easily fit into New Jersey.

“When you’re in the middle of a longleaf forest, it’s not hard to imagine 90 million acres of longleaf spread across the South,” says Rhett Johnson, co-founder of the nonprofit organization Longleaf Alliance. “The vistas are overwhelming. There’s also the sea of wildflowers and grasses, the birds and these distinctive, columnar trees with their long, shiny needles and huge pinecones. But you can also imagine the early settlers taking it for granted because it was everywhere.”

By the 1990s, so few people remembered these immense forested areas that their loss was hardly felt. Longleaf-focused scientists such as Bill Boyer, a Southern Research Station biologist known to many as “Mr. Longleaf,” were near the end of their careers. Fewer people than ever appreciated the “whispering pines” with forest floors that were bathed in dappled sunlight that filtered through high, open tree canopies.

Johnson and Dean Gjerstad, a professor emeritus at Auburn University, thought longleaf was worth saving. “We first looked at longleaf just as a tree, but then we realized what a unique and valuable ecosystem it was. Healthy longleaf forests have incredible biodiversity. They’re like living museums when you consider how little is left,” says Johnson.

They decided it was time to take action. “It was like we were Johnny Appleseeds,” says Johnson. “We’d scatter like a covey of quail and go to four different states. And it wasn’t just about hunting or timber. Some landowners were just excited about restoring this historic, iconic landscape.”

In 2007, the Longleaf Alliance joined forces with more than 20 other organizations from federal and state agencies and the private sector to ensure a sustainable future for longleaf pine ecosystems. That partnership became ALRI — America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative.

ALRI partners provide a wide range of services and perspectives related to the restoration effort. Here are a few examples:

  • The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and the USDA Forest Service’s Cooperative Forestry staff work with state governments, private landowners, and other partners to raise awareness about longleaf habitat and relevant assistance programs such as the Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with landowners to establish safe harbor agreements, which can eliminate liability under the Endangered Species Act if the landowner manages land in a predetermined way.
  • The Department of Defense works with the Fish and Wildlife Service on actions that might affect listed species.
  • The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation manages the Longleaf Stewardship Fund, which has helped restore and enhance more than 1.5 million longleaf acres.
  • The Conservation Fund is working with private landowners to establish and maintain the Coastal Headwaters Forest, a functional longleaf ecosystem in the Florida Panhandle and southern Alabama.

ALRI’s conservation plan, drafted in 2009, calls for an increase in longleaf-dominant forests to 8 million acres by 2025. It’s an ambitious goal, for several reasons. For one, a lot of former longleaf habitat has been developed. Secondly, longleaf ecosystems depend on frequent, low-intensity fire, which is a difficult management prospect for forests near developed areas.

Given the size and importance of this project, it’s critical for forest managers to base their restoration work on sound science and silviculture. SRS scientists are supporting longleaf restoration efforts across the region by focusing on ecological conditions and resiliency.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers, an endangered species, prefer to make their homes in mature longleaf woodlands. Photo by Andrew Cannizzaro, courtesy of Flickr.

“It’s not just the number of acres that matters, it’s how good they are,” says Emrys Treasure, inventory, monitoring, assessment, and climate change coordinator for the USDA Forest Service Southern Region.

One problem that SRS scientists are addressing is that, while planting millions of acres of longleaf pines requires seeds, longleaf trees are only sporadic producers of seed-bearing cones. By tracking longleaf pine cone production and seeding efforts for more than 50 years, SRS researchers have helped land managers plan restoration efforts around projected longleaf cone production.

In addition, genetic research has helped ensure that commercially grown seedlings are robust and viable. From these studies and others, SRS scientists have developed guidelines for producing quality longleaf pine seeds, while efforts by the SRS’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) unit have helped to quantify the extent of longleaf habitat in various regions across the southeastern United States.

In a separate study that focuses on the accompanying organisms found in longleaf pine-dominated ecosystems in North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina, SRS scientists have developed roadmaps and identified plant species for longleaf understory restoration.

Longleaf pine habitat is fire-dependent and managed with controlled burning like this one at the Moody Forest Wildlife Management Area in Georgia. Photo by Randy Tate, The Longleaf Alliance.

By examining factors such as fire frequency and prior land use, this research is contributing to the recovery of declining species such as red-cockaded woodpeckers while providing habitat for critical organisms such as pollinators.

In another study, SRS researchers are using an array of high-resolution visual technologies to better understand how prescribed fire affects the interactions between fuels, fire, and plant diversity in longleaf pine ecosystems. This is particularly important research: although it’s widely accepted that prescribed fire promotes diversity in understory plants, exactly how this happens is not well understood.

“We’ve got as many ‘knowns’ as we have ‘unknowns’ in longleaf research,” says Don Bragg, project leader of the SRS longleaf pine research unit.

While this initiative will transform parts of the South, it also has implications for landscape-wide ecosystem restoration efforts elsewhere.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress, even though we have a long way to go,” says Ken Arney, acting regional forester for the Southern Region. “Our hope is that we can reach our goal of 8 million acres by 2025 while also demonstrating that this kind of effort can be replicated in other landscapes around the country.”

A longer version of this article was published in the Fall 2018 issue of The Longleaf Leader.

Read more about SRS research on longleaf pine restoration.

For more information, email Don Bragg at dbragg@fs.fed.us.

Access the latest publications by SRS scientists.


Subscribe to our newsletter!

Receive weekly updates