“In ‘pine barrens’ most of the day. Low, level, sandy tracts; the pines wide apart; the sunny spaces between full of beautiful, abounding grasses, liatris, long, wand-like solidago, saw palmettos, etc., covering the ground in garden style. Here I sauntered in delightful freedom, meeting none of the cat-clawed vines, or shrubs, of the alluvial bottoms.” –John Muir
Any Southerner worth their weight in the woods will tell you there are few sights more beautiful to behold than a well-managed longleaf pine forest.
Whether you choose to “saunter in delightful freedom” as John Muir did when he encountered this precious Southern ecosystem, marvel at its ability to support a high quality habitat for a plethora of plant and animal species, or reap the economic rewards of harvesting longleaf pines, the privilege of having longleaf pines prosper on your property is priceless.
With a historic range of almost 93 million acres, the longleaf pine once reigned supreme from Virginia to Texas, playing a vital role in the natural history of the South, providing a unique fire-dependent habitat that showcased open, savannah-like woodlands with more than 40 different plant species per square meter and several wildlife species that are now threatened or endangered.
The longleaf pine also heavily influenced the cultural history of the South. Early settlers found out quickly how to reap the longleaf pine’s rewards by extracting building materials and supplies for naval stores — from tar and pitch processed from dead conifers to the strong, rot-resistant wood used for keels, beams, side planks, decks, masts and spars.
As railroad and spur lines were built, moved and rebuilt across the Southern forests, sawmills and mill towns sprung up almost overnight.
New technology helped skyrocket timber harvest techniques and efficiency.
Unfortunately, these rewards, just like the forests, had an expiration date. By the 1930s, the longleaf forest the settlers encountered was only a memory, and over-exploitation had surpassed the tree’s ability to adapt and survive, whittling the Southern giant’s domain to less than 4 million acres today.
While restoring the longleaf to its original range may be impossible, landowners today can help bring back some of the tree’s original glory and enjoy a host of benefits by incorporating longleaf pine into their management plan.
If the nostalgia of restoration isn’t enough to spur you to action, consider the contributions longleaf pine can make for your property.
Wildlife-friendly: In addition to being home to several threatened and endangered species such as the red cockaded woodpecker, the eastern indigo snake, the flatwoods salamander and the gopher tortoise, a well-managed longleaf ecosystem is ideal for bobwhite quail, fox squirrels, wild turkeys, whitetail deer and songbirds.
Adaptable: Landowners can plant longleaf pine on a variety of site conditions from excessively drained sandy hills to all but the most saturated of clays.
Resistant: From pine beetles and fusiform rust to fire, ice and wind, the longleaf pine has proven itself to be one hardy tree species regardless of its foes.
Eco-friendly: With the ability to live up to 250 years or more, the longleaf pine can secure stored carbon for extended time periods.
Economically sound: The same life history that makes longleaf a valuable component to the ecosystem also generates highly-valued, straight, dense, rot resistant wood products. From utility poles to pine straw, longleaf offers landowners a variety of profitable and flexible marketing options. Additionally, the longleaf pine’s valuable wildlife habitat can positively impact hunting leases.
For landowners seeking support in the establishment of longleaf pines on their properties, cost-share programs are available. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), administered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, offers financial and technical assistance, in addition to programs offered by various state agencies.
For more information on what you need to know before you begin integrating longleaf pines into your land management plan, check out next month’s column on planting tips for both agricultural fields and forestland.