Restoration of Longleaf Pine Ecosystems
Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) ecosystems once occupied 38 million ha in the Southeastern United States, occurring as forests, woodlands, and savannas on a variety of sites ranging from wet flatwoods to xeric sandhills and rocky mountainous ridges. Characterized by an open parklike structure, longleaf pine ecosystems are a product of frequent fires, facilitated by the presence of fallen pine needles and bunchgrasses in the understory. Timber harvest, land conversion to agricultural and other nonforest uses, and alteration of fire regimes greatly reduced longleaf pine ecosystems, until only 1.2 million ha remained in 1995. Longleaf pine ecosystems are among the most species-rich ecosystems outside the tropics. However, habitat loss and degradation have caused increased rarity of many obligate species. The lack of frequent surface fires and the proliferation of woody plants in the understory and midstory have greatly increased the risk of additional longleaf pine ecosystem losses from catastrophic fire.Because longleaf pine still exists in numerous small fragments throughout its range, it is reasonable to conclude that it can be restored. Restoration efforts now underway use physical, chemical, and pyric methods to reestablish the natural structure and function in these ecosystems by adjusting species composition, modifying stand structure, and facilitating ecological processes, such as periodic fire and longleaf pine regeneration. The ecological, economic, and social benefits of restoring longleaf pine ecosystems include (1) expanding the habitat available to aid in the recovery of numerous imperiled species, (2) improving habitat quality for many wildlife species, (3) producing greater amounts of high-quality longleaf pine timber products, (4) increasing the production of pine straw, (5) providing new recreational opportunities, (6) preserving natural and cultural legacies, and (7) creating a broader range of management options for future generations.