John S. Powers, Area Biologist
When European explorers first reached the southeastern United States, they encountered a landscape far different from that which we now experience. Those early adventurers, in search of legendary riches, found little of the gold they sought. The riches they found took a far different form. They entered a world dominated by the longleaf pine. This species and its associated ecosystem would later be found valuable in its own right.
The longleaf pine ecosystem once spread over the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains from southern Virginia through central Florida and all the way to eastern Texas. Estimates vary, but its extent was once somewhere between 60 and 137 million acres. Though species associations varied from location to location, the appearance of these widespread stands was very similar. Open forest canopies were dominated by the towering longleaf, some three feet in diameter, 120 feet tall and as much as 500 years old. A scattered but significant midstory consisted, for the most part, of fire tolerant scrub oaks. Relatively little woody understory was to be seen, but the ground was carpeted with a host of grasses, forbes, legumes, and other herbaceous species whose growth was encouraged by the abundant sunlight reaching the forest floor. The ancient longleaf forest presented a vista of great beauty matched by few in the world.
The southeastern longleaf pine ecosystem was dependent on another constant, one that initially seems incongruous with the seemingly idyllic nature of this unique habitat. Fire--frequent fire--was a part of life in this region. Initially, fires were started by lightning strikes that most often occurred during the growing season. Later, Native Americans set fires to clear land for farming and to improve conditions for hunting. Relatively cool ground fires often burned unimpeded for days or weeks and across many miles of almost unbroken longleaf forest. Coastal Plain woodlands burned regularly. Fires swept through regularly, usually at intervals of two to six years. These fires kept ground level fuel supplies low and inhibited the survival of most other canopy species. Were it not for fire, the shade intolerant, but remarkably fire adapted longleaf pines would have been quickly choked out by other species.
The longleaf pine community, though aesthetically pleasing, concealed treasures not readily apparent. It was incredibly diverse with regard to the plant and animal species of which it was comprised.
Single stands often contained more than 200 plant species, most of which occurred in the herbaceous ground layer. Of the 290 reptile and amphibian species native to the Southeast, 170 (96 reptiles, 74 amphibians) are found within the range of the longleaf pine ecosystem. A host of bird and mammal species prospered among the pines as well. Moreover, many of the species associated with the longleaf pine ecosystem are endemic, found nowhere else in the world.
Times change, the world changes at the whim of human priorities, and the landscape of the southern coastal plain is no exception. The extent of the longleaf pine ecosystem in the southeastern United States has been reduced to less than three million acres, a small fraction of its former range no matter whose estimate you use. The remainder is 2nd, 3rd, or 4th generation stands. Land clearing for purposes of agriculture, road building, and urbanization have taken their toll. Timber harvests, many of the “cut out and get out” variety, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries stripped the landscape of a treasure not recognized as such by the earliest European observers. Economic influences have dictated that most past and present reforestation in the Southeast has been to faster growing species such as loblolly or slash pine. The rolling savannah-like world of the southeastern coastal plain is, for the most part, gone.
It appears that if current trends continue, more than a beautiful landscape may be lost. At least 27 plant species associated with the longleaf pine ecosystem are federally listed as endangered with 99 more listed as threatened or as species of special concern. More than 30 vertebrate species (amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) historically tied to the longleaf community have declined to the point of listing as well. Some of the more recognizable species of concern include the red-cockaded woodpecker, gopher tortoise, indigo snake, red hills salamander, and several species of pitcher plant. Many declining species are associated with bog, seep, and ephemeral pool microhabitats embedded within the remaining longleaf stands and are found nowhere else.
Though recent trends seemingly have dealt the longleaf pine ecosystem a heavy blow, all may not be lost. The Untied States Forest Service has made restoration of the mature longleaf pine ecosystem a priority on its lands in the southeastern region. In time, through reforestation of suitable sites to longleaf pine and the reestablishment of a more natural burning regime within existing stands, considerable acreage of mature or maturing longleaf pine habitat may be restored. Also encouraging is the fact that various landowner cost-share programs, both state and federal, are prioritizing planting of longleaf pine on sites best suited to them. Finally, the Longleaf Alliance, a coalition of more than 900 individual and corporate members, is working systematically through research, education, and commercial activities, to promote retention and restoration of longleaf pine on productive sites throughout the southeast. Together, the renewed interest in the longleaf pine and its associated ecosystem, combined with the commitment of those working toward its reestablishment, may well have turned a bleak future for many unique species several shades brighter.