America's Forgotten Forest
Found only in the Deep South, longleaf pine woodlands have dwindled to about 3 percent of their former range, but new efforts are under way to restore them
THE BEAUTY AND THE BIODIVERSITY of the longleaf pine forest are well-kept secrets, even in its native South. Yet it is among the richest ecosystems in North America, rivaling tallgrass prairies and the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest in the number of species it shelters. And like those two other disappearing wildlife habitats, longleaf is also critically endangered.
Longleaf pines grow to a height of 100 to 130 feet, with needles up to 18 inches long, and can live for 300 to 400 years. They start life looking like a clump of grass. Initially slow-growing above ground as they establish a vigorous taproot, they later enter a "rocket" stage, shooting up as much as 4 feet per year before leveling off to a more sedate rate of growth. In longleaf pine forests, trees grow widely scattered, creating an open, parklike environment, more like a savanna than a forest. "Longleaf is really more of a grassland," says Mike Conner, lead wildlife biologist at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichuway in southwestern Georgia. "The trees are not so dense as to block the sun." This openness creates a forest floor that is among the most diverse in the world, where plants such as many-flowered grass pinks, trumpet pitcher plants, Venus flytraps, lavender ladies and pineland bogbuttons grow. As many as 50 different species of wildflowers, shrubs, grasses and ferns have been cataloged in just a single square meter. At the Jones Center, an oasis of longleaf in a desert of peanut and cotton fields, more than 1,100 plant species thrive on 29,000 acres.
Wildlife species living in longleaf forests include northern bobwhite quail, red-cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoises, striped newts, southeastern pocket gophers, pinewoods treefrogs, mimic glass lizards, pine and prairie warblers, eastern indigo snakes, Bachman's sparrows and many more. During his 10 years at the Jones Center, Conner has studied everything from bobcats to bats. One of his favorite research subjects is Sherman's fox squirrel, a subspecies of the eastern fox squirrel found only in southern Georgia and northern Florida. The squirrels come in two color phases--gray or tan--but all sport a black head with striking white nose and ears. "They're the biggest tree squirrel in North America," Conner says, "and they're tightly linked to longleaf." Sherman's fox squirrel numbers have dropped by 85 percent since European settlement, closely mirroring the disappearance of their longleaf home.
Many other species show similar declines. The Louisiana pine snake, which lives only in the piney woods of western Louisiana and eastern Texas, is now one of the rarest snakes in the country. The flatwoods salamander, a strikingly patterned amphibian restricted to pinelands, has been federally listed as threatened.
Once, nearly 92 million acres of longleaf forest flourished from Virginia to Texas, the only place in the world where it is found. By the turn of the 21st century, however, virtually all of it had been logged, paved or farmed into oblivion. Only about 3 percent of the original range still supports longleaf forest, and only about 10,000 acres of that is uncut old-growth--the rest is forest that has regrown after cutting. An estimated 100,000 of those acres are still vanishing every year. However, a quiet movement to reverse this trend is rippling across the region. Governments, private organizations (including NWF) and individual conservationists are looking for ways to protect and preserve the remaining longleaf and to plant new forests for future generations. Figuring out how to bring back the piney woods also will allow biologists to help the plants and animals that depend on this habitat. Nearly two-thirds of the declining, threatened or endangered species in the southeastern United States are associated with longleaf.
The outright destruction of longleaf is only part of their story, says Mark Danaher, the biologist for South Carolina's Francis Marion National Forest. He says the demise of these animals and plants also is tied to a lack of fire, which once swept through the southern forests on a regular basis. "Fire is absolutely critical for this ecosystem and for the species that depend on it," says Danaher, who oversees the wildlife on the national forest's 35,000 acres of pure longleaf. In the case of the flatwoods salamander, fire opens up a path so these 4-inch-long amphibians can reach the small seasonal wetlands where they lay their eggs. "Without fire, the gallberry and titi and other bushes get so thick, the salamanders can't get through," Danaher says.
Name just about any species that occurs in longleaf and you can find a connection to fire. Bachman's sparrow is a secretive bird with a beautiful song that echoes across the longleaf flatwoods. It tucks its nest on the ground beneath clumps of wiregrass and little bluestem in the open understory. But once fire has been absent for several years, and a tangle of shrubs starts to grow, the sparrows disappear. Gopher tortoises, the only native land tortoises east of the Mississippi, are also abundant in longleaf. A keystone species for these forests, its burrows provide homes and safety to more than 300 species of vertebrates and invertebrates ranging from eastern diamondback rattlesnakes to gopher frogs. If fire is suppressed, however, the tortoises are choked out. "If we lose fire," says Bob Mitchell, an ecologist at the Jones Center, "we lose wildlife."
Without fire, we also lose longleaf. Fire knocks back the oaks and other hardwoods that can grow up to overwhelm longleaf forests. "They are fire forests," Mitchell says. "They evolved in the lightning capital of the eastern United States." And it wasn't only lightning strikes that set the forest aflame. "Native Americans also lit fires to keep the forest open," Mitchell says. "So did the early pioneers. They helped create the longleaf pine forests that we know today."
Fire also changes how nutrients flow throughout longleaf ecosystems, in ways we are just beginning to understand. For example, researchers have discovered that frequent fires provide extra calcium, which is critical for egg production, to endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. Frances James, a retired avian ecologist from Florida State University, has studied these small black-and-white birds for more than two decades in Florida's sprawling Apalachicola National Forest. When she realized female woodpeckers laid larger clutches in the first breeding season after their territories were burned, she and her colleagues went searching for answers. "We learned calcium is stashed away in woody shrubs when the forest is not burned," James says. "But when there is a fire, a pulse of calcium moves down into the soil and up into the longleaf." Eventually, this calcium makes its way up the food chain to a tree-dwelling species of ant, which is the red-cockaded's favorite food. The result: more calcium for the birds, which leads to more eggs, more young and more woodpeckers.
Today, fire is used as a vital management tool for preserving both longleaf and its wildlife. Most of these fires are prescribed burns, deliberately set with a drip torch. Although the public often opposes any type of fire--and the smoke that goes with it--these frequent, low-intensity burns reduce the risk of catastrophic conflagrations. "Forests are going to burn," says Amadou Diop, NWF's southern forests restoration manager. "It's just a question of when. With prescribed burns, we can pick the time and the place."
Diop is spearheading a new NWF effort to restore longleaf. "It's a species we need to go back to," he says. Educating landowners about the advantages of growing longleaf is part of the program, he adds, which will soon be under way in nine southern states. It is starting off in Alabama, with a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Southern Company, an Atlanta-based utility firm that provides electricity throughout the South. This project will establish 10,000 acres of longleaf pine in Alabama during the next three years.
"Right now, most longleaf is on public land," says Jerry McCollum, president of the Georgia Wildlife Federation. "Private land is where we need to work," he adds, pointing out that more than 90 percent of the acreage within the historic range of longleaf falls under this category.
Interest among private landowners is growing throughout the South, but restoring longleaf is not an easy task. It is not just a matter of growing the trees, says Mark Hainds, research coordinator for the Alabama-based Longleaf Alliance, another organization promoting the return of these forests. The herbaceous layer--the understory of wiregrasses and other plants--also needs to be re-created. In areas where the land has not been chewed up by farming, but converted to loblolly or slash pine plantations, the seed bank of the longleaf forest usually remains viable beneath the soil. In time, this original vegetation can be coaxed back. Where agriculture has destroyed the seeds, however, wiregrass must be replanted. Right now, the expense is prohibitive, but researchers are searching for low-cost solutions.
One landowner already shifting to longleaf is Beryl Edwards Trawick. Her 1,000 acres near Ponchatoula, Louisiana, just north of Lake Pontchartrain, was originally covered with these pines. Years ago, her ancestors harvested turpentine and cut massive trees destined to become the masts of sailing ships. But eventually, the property was planted with loblolly. "I would ride my horse across my land and see remnant longleaf here and there," Trawick says. About 10 years ago, she decided to switch back. "Longleaf produces better timber, they're more wind and drought resistant, they withstand insects better than loblolly, and they also provide more food for wildlife," she says.
Bringing back longleaf is not for the short-sighted, however. Few of us will be alive when the pines being planted today become mature forests in 70 to 80 years. But that is not stopping longleaf enthusiasts. "Today, it's getting hard to find longleaf seedlings to buy," Trawick says. "Everyone wants them. Longleaf is in a resurgence."
Doreen Cubie lives in South Carolina, where longleaf pine forest was once a predominant ecosystem.
NWF in Action: Saving Longleaf Pine Forests
Working with scientists and government authorities, NWF and some of its state affiliates have set a goal for expanding longleaf pine forests across southern coastal plain states from less than 3 percent of historic range today to 10 percent within 15 years. The Alabama Wildlife Federation, one of the state affiliates, has taken the lead in initiating a project to restore 10,000 acres of longleaf in Alabama. NWF and the Alabama affiliate also have been consulting with the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichuway in Georgia and the Longleaf Alliance in Alabama on methods for improving the federation's restoration work. For more information on NWF and its affiliates, go to www.nwf.org.
The Resilience of Longleaf Pine Trees
When Hurricane Katrina struck the United States in August 2005, the storm damaged 1.2 million acres of forest in Mississippi alone. A study of two forests established in the state's Forrest County in 1985 specifically for research purposes indicates, however, that not all trees were damaged equally.
The two forests were planted with three pine species native to the South--longleaf, loblolly and slash. Of the three, longleaf pines faired best in their battle with the storm. Most of the damage to the other two species came in the form of snapped trees, literally broken apart by wind. Longleaf pines tended to bend with the wind or blow over.
The ability of the longleaf pines to bear the brunt of storms without breaking is beneficial to more than the thousands of species found in longleaf forests. Landowners, especially those who profit from the sale of tree productss, also benefit. Snapped trees immediately lose most of their value--as much as 90 percent--as sources of lumber or chipped wood and are reduced to being used for pulp. Because longleaf root systems remain intact after damage even in storms like Katrina, these pines maintain their value longer even if blown down and can be harvested for products of higher value than pulp. Longleaf also is more resistant to fire, insects and fungal infestations than are the other two tree species. If hurricanes do become increasingly severe and more frequent in the immediate future, as some climatologists predict they will in the wake of global warming, then landowners might want to consider planting longleaf and joining the effort to restore the lost forests.
Longleaf forests once covered about 92 million acres of the South, but almost all of it was cut down after European settlement. Only about 10,000 acres of uncut longleaf remain today. Regrown forests cover about 3 million acres of the pine's original range.--Roger Di Silvestro