Two centuries ago, longleaf pine forest stretched across the southeast USA, from East Texas along the Gulf Coast through the Carolinas and into Virginia. Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) was the dominant tree species on an estimated 60 million acres, and it was part of the mix of species on another 30 million acres.
This ecosystem supports a highly diverse understory, including native warm-season grasses, forbs, and legumes. The open longleaf pine forests provided excellent habitat for butterflies, birds like the northern bobwhite quail and Eastern wild turkey, and fox squirrel.
According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, more than 30 plants and animals associated with longleaf pine ecosystems, including the red-cockaded woodpecker and gopher tortoise, are listed as threatened or endangered.
Today, the longleaf pine ecosystem covers less than 3 million acres of its historic range, often in scattered tracts. Since 1997, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has offered longleaf pine plantings as a Conservation Reserve Program option during general signups. About 210,000 acres of cropland has been planted with longleaf pine through this method.
In 2006, the USDA unveiled its Longleaf Pine Initiative, an more focused effort to use Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts to restore up to 250,000 more acres of longleaf pine forest and associated grasslands on private land in nine southern states.
Under the new initiative, USDA started offering “continuous signup” contracts in 2006 so landowners could enroll in the program at any time, without needing to wait for a general CRP signup or compete with other applicants for a contract. USDA also offered bonus payments under the new initiative. By April, 2009, 70,315 acres of cropland had been converted to longleaf pine through the initiative.
Although the special initiative is open in nine southern states, about 80% of the acres enrolled through April, 2009, were in Georgia. The relative success in Georgia provides important lessons in implementing conservation programs.
Stan Moore, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service RC&D Coordinator for the Seven Rivers Resource Conservation and Development Council in Baxley, Georgia, explains that the first efforts to plant longleaf pine in Georgia through the CRP were not very successful. Pressure from fast-growing weeds overwhelmed the tree seedlings.
Program managers decided to incorporate warm-season grass plantings with the longleaf pine to provide a land cover that would keep weeds in check and provide fuel for prescribed burns that are important to the longleaf pine ecosystem. The warm-season grasses could also provide wildlife and erosion benefits. Unfortunately, there was very little experience in the area in planting warm-season grasses, and many landowners were skeptical about the chances for success.
Seven Rivers RC&D made it easier for landowners to enroll in the program by developing a turnkey operation for landowners. The RC&D contracted with FDCE, a firm from Ohio that has extensive experience in warm-season grassland plantings. Together they developed a package deal that includes the appropriate mix of grass and forb seed, a customized grass drill, and the right tree seedlings and chemical application.
The result is an installation system that makes it easy on the landowner, and provides for a very high success rate in establishing longleaf pine and the associated warm-season grass.
Seven Rivers RC&D also focused on education and outreach to landowners. They contacted potential participants and held a workshop and field day for landowners. Information was also posted on the RC&D web site.
Longleaf pine trees are well adapted to fires, which help remove debris and woody species that compete with longleaf pine. Regular fire also results in an open forest understory, dominated by fire-resistant native grasses, forbs and legumes.
CRP contracts for longleaf pine plantings typically require prescribed burning of the understory, or regular disking between rows of trees to control other woody species.
Today, Seven Rivers RC&D and its partners are looking to the future, developing local sources for native grassland seeds. They are also using the CRP State Acres for wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) to restore longleaf pine savannah in Georgia.
This is one of a series of Conservation Success Stories published by National Wildlife Federation with support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
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