Restoring an Ecosystem, the Case for Longleaf Pine

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:03/24/2011

This is the final in a series of three posts about Longleaf Pine forests in the South.

What does it mean to lose an entire ecosystem?  With the longleaf pine forest we almost found out.  A system that once swept across 90 million acres of ground from southern Virginia to eastern Texas has been reduced to less than 3 1/2 million acres.  It is no surprise then, that in the past decade, many interests have coalesced around the desire to restore this most quintessential of southern forests.

Past blog posts on this topic have addressed the ecological and economic benefits of longleaf and explored the example of one restorationist landowner.  This blog takes a step back to look at the big picture, and peer into the future.  

The Rangewide Conservation Plan for Longleaf Pine

In 2009, “America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative” released the Rangewide Conservation Plan for Longleaf Pine.  Developed by a regional working group of 22 private, state and federal organizations and supported by the USDA Forest Service, Department of Defense, and US Fish & Wildlife Service, this is a plan of action with all the hallmarks of winning partnerships:

  • science-based
  • collaborative
  • voluntary and nonregulatory
  • landscape scale
  • putting resources on-the-ground for actual stewardship
  • preventative of endangered species listings, rather than reactive
Development of the plan took two years and included the participation of hundreds of experts.  It is founded on the work of organizations such as the Longleaf Alliance, which have done much to advance our understanding of longleaf ecosystems over the past decades.  

The goal of the Rangewide Plan is simple and ambitious:  increase longleaf pine forest acreage over the next 14 years from 3.4 million to 8 million acres.  In contrast to America’s federal lands in the West, public lands throughout the South harbor the largest remaining concentrations of biologically diverse longleaf forest.  

The Rangewide strategy is to expand and improve longleaf around these national forest and DOD nodes scattered across 16 distinct geographic regions.  The Plan seeks to increase longleaf by protecting what’s left, improving what’s degraded, and restoring the rest.  

Private landowners will be crucial to the Plan’s success, as 80% of restoration will have to occur on their lands.  This effort is already well underway with cost-share resources and technical expertise contributed by numerous agencies, including:
  • Forest Service State and Private Forestry grants
  • Farm Services Agency funding through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) - unfortunately slated for decline in coming years
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service WHIP (Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program) funding
  • American Reinvestment and Recovery Act grant funds
  • Fish & Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program
These cost-effective matching grant programs provide a tremendous service to communities and private landowners who seek assistance with the significant upfront costs of restoration.  Ronnie Haynes, Southeast Regional Coordinator for Partners for Fish and Wildlife, says this initiative also gains effectiveness by pooling resources and expertise across agencies.

Todd Nightingale of the Texas-Louisiana Longleaf Taskforce notes that WHIP funding is incredibly popular with landowners.  Last year an additional $5 million of WHIP funding was allocated for longleaf restoration, and it still did not meet demand.  This year, $12.1 million of WHIP funding is identified for longleaf.    

When will Longleaf become a household word?

Though every school child knows about the rainforest, many southern households still have much to learn about the resources in their own backyards.  The longleaf pine ecosystem is one of the most ecologically diverse in the world.  It supports 30 federally listed threatened or endangered species, 10 candidate species, and hundreds of migratory birds and other species of conservation interest.  

With more than 900 plant species that are found nowhere else on Earth, and 50 to 100 understory species occurring per square meter, it’s not a stretch to call longleaf the temperate equivalent of South America’s rainforests.  There is one essential difference, however.  As Laurie Fenwood, America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative Coordinator, likes to say, “Fire is to longleaf what rain is to the Amazon.”  

The longleaf pine ecosystem is fire dependent.  On the whole, metro America remains firmly grasped within the paws of Smokey the Bear.  As a result, combining the words “forest” and “fire” equates to a catastrophe in the public mind.  On the other hand, scientists, woodland managers, and a number of private landowners now appreciate the essential benefits that fire - in the form of prescribed, controlled burns - brings to the system:
  • lower wildland fire risk
  • lower insect/disease risk
  • scarifying and enriching the soils
  • promoting seed germination
  • reducing weed competition
  • diversifying forest structure
  • enhancing wildlife habitat
Healthy longleaf forests benefit communities through enhanced real estate and recreational values, while lowering the cost of land management (planting longleaf is considered preventive of wildfire!).  Exploration of the potential for longleaf thinnings to meet biomass energy demand and longleaf forest growth to sequester atmospheric carbon is just beginning.

The question remains, will America succeed in holding on to one of her most beautiful, productive and diverse ecosystems or will longleaf go the way of the wooden battleships that their strong trunks once helped to build?  Given current federal budget woes, the future of longleaf funding is anyone’s guess.  My bet is on the longleaf ecosystem itself and the people who understand its value.

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re: Restoring an Ecosystem, the Case for Longleaf Pine
By: John on: 01/20/2012

I have been to Moody Forest in Appling County, Georgia. While the understory is still in the process of restoration through prescribed burning, it is an amazing piece of property with old growth longleaf. The coastal plain section of what is now the SE US must have been one of the most beautiful places on earth. All efforts to restore this ecosystem will benefit us and future generations.