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Longleaf redux.

MAJESTIC, HISTORIC, INVALUABLE. A WEALTH OF ADJECTIVES - AND BENEFITS - DESCRIBE THIS ALMOST-VANISHED SOUTHERN ECOSYSTEM, ON THE REBOUND AND BELOVED BY FORESTERS AND ENDANGERED SPECIES ALIKE.

The pine seedlings, scattered randomly across several dozen acres, resemble tiny clumps of grass more than trees. Interspersed among them are almost invisible plugs of withered grass. Planted last fall on some of the poorest sand soils in Florida, nothing about this fledgling forest southwest of Tallahassee hints at its significance.

In another two years or so, the whole affair will be put to the torch, which would doom most any other infant pine woods. But the longleaf pine that is increasingly being planted here and at many other Global ReLeaf sites across the Southeast is like no other species of pine.

The fire's effect on the longleaf seedlings, and on the plugs of wiregrass planted among them as an understory, will be nearly as dramatic as rain falling on some desert plants. From their low and clumpy "grass stage," the longleafs, even ones that appear scorched, will within months bolt skyward - 15-18 feet in two years was recorded recently at one Florida site. And from a charcoaled, stub-like state the wiregrass will begin to sprout almost immediately, sending out 2- to 3-foot flowering stalks and seeds.

The fire is as essential to this growth and reproduction as injecting nitrogen fertilizer in a cornfield. If left to maturity, the little pines here will just be starting the prime of their seed production around a century and a half from now, a time when many pine species are approaching senescence.

The Nature Conservancy owns this site - Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve - where AMERICAN FORESTS sponsors one of its Global ReLeaf Forests. Global ReLeaf has sponsored 25,000 longleaf seedlings a year at that site for the past three years and is funding 50,000 a year for the next three years. The planting is part of TNC's long-range goal of replacing slash pine, which is poorly suited for the sandy soils here, with more than a million longleaf pines that will cover some five square miles.

The Global ReLeaf projects, says The Nature Conservancy's land steward Greg Seamon, have proven "a great way to get people excited about trees." In planting longleaf, students and other volunteers are participating in what foresters hope will someday restore one of the nation's great, almost-vanished ecosystems. It not only produced wood of extraordinary properties but harbored an astoundingly rich assemblage of plants and animals.

Variously known as "Georgia pine," "yellow pine," "longstraw," or "heart pine," the longleaf forest dominated an estimated 60-90 million acres of uplands at the time of European settlement, stretching - unbroken - from Virginia to east Texas. Fires set by lightning and, to a lesser degree, by Native Americans swept the forest every few years, maintaining a unique landscape, more akin to trees populating a prairie than to the cathedral-like, canopied gloom popularly associated with old-growth.

Early naturalists described these piney woods as open and parklike, where a horseman might ride with little hindrance for days on end. "The massive trees dotted the rolling coastal plain in a sea of grass; gentle breezes, laden with a resinous perfume, rippled the crowns and generated music ... the sweetest south of the Mason-Dixon line," is the lyrical beginning to an historical report of longleaf done for the U.S. Forest Service.

Although longleaf can live well past 400 years, fewer than 10,000 acres of old-growth fitting this description remains. Longleaf forests of all ages and qualities today account for less than 3 million acres - just a few percent of the original ecosystem, according to U.S. Forest Service statistics.

The reasons for longleaf's demise run the gamut: logging, clearing for agriculture, draining of sap by the turpentine industry, suppression of fire in more modern times, and replacement with faster-growing pine species by an industry moving toward shorter rotations for wood fiber. Until very recently, the major forces conserving much of the remaining, high-quality longleaf forest have been wealthy quail hunters and the U.S. military.

Bobwhite quail, whose pursuit qualifies as a bonafide subculture, love the richly diverse, grassy understory of an intact longleaf forest, and the openness of a mature forest perfectly complements wingshooting.

Even larger acreages exist on military lands like Fort Bragg, Eglin Air Force Base, Camp LeJeune, and Fort Benning. The frequent fires set by flares and weaponry during infantry maneuvers, tank warfare, and aerial bombardment have maintained a fair semblance of the natural fire regime that historically helped longleaf outcompete other vegetation.

A few years ago estimates set the longleaf forests' rate of decline at some 100,000 acres a year, but there is evidence this trend is reversing, at least on the approximately 1 million acres in public ownership. (Another 1.5 million is owned by private individuals and about half a million by commercial forest interests.)

In Florida, the state with the most longleaf acreage left, state forests are committed to restoring longleaf wherever it grew historically. Joe Gocsik, a forester at the 167,000-acre Withlacoochee State Forest, leaves no doubt as to his seriousness about restoration during a tour of the Global ReLeaf site there.

About 130 acres has just been planted with longleaf seedlings on a tract being converted back to its native ecosystem, and an invasive exotic, Cogongrass, was subdued after several applications of herbicide. "This is going to make a really fine forest," Gocsik says, noting the hundreds of 30-year-old longleafs there.

Anywhere on Withlacoochee lands, he says, his policy is to fine loggers who cut a longleaf $50 to $100, plus twice the value of the fallen tree, "and they have to leave the tree."

Not far from the Global ReLeaf forest-in-the-making, Gocsik pauses to show "what we're aiming for." It is a stand of longleaf, some a century old or more, widely spaced across a grassy understory. With a northwest breeze tossing the pine boughs and rippling the grasses so they shimmer and glint in the winter sun that floods the forest, you can see why it is a place Gocsik loves to stop for lunch. "I eat and just watch the wildlife come out all around me," he says.

Even without its considerable aesthetic and ecological values, longleaf would be worth restoring just for its wood, says Dean Gjerstad, a professor of forestry at Auburn University. Gjerstad is also a founder of the Longleaf Alliance, established in 1996 to promote and coordinate restoration of the species.

Longleaf is resistant to fusiform rust and southern pine beetles, serious problems for many of the pine family. It is an early self-limber, growing tall and straight. It is harder and more rot-resistant than the rest of the pine family. The U.S. Navy, which built 40,000 wooden craft during WWII, knew this well. Early plantation homes favored longleaf from the foundations up for its unmatched rot and termite resistance.

But the greater marvel lies in the longleaf ecosystem, the highly diverse array of plants and animals, birds and insects associated with longleaf and its grassy understory. "Longleaf was such an important part of the southern ecosystem historically. We need to repair the damage that's been done there," AMERICAN FORESTS' executive director Deborah Gangloff says, adding that she concurs with The Nature Conservancy's assessment of longleaf as "the most biologically diverse habitat in the contiguous United States."

One example: On the Global ReLeaf site at Withlacoochee, Gocsik kicks at the once and possibly future burrow of a gopher tortoise, a large, threatened reptile dependent upon longleaf forests. It is a so-called "keystone" species of the system, Gocsik explains. Some 300 other species are known to use its burrows for habitat.

The federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, whose colonies have dwindled from an estimated 500,000 to some 5,000 nationwide, are almost wholly dependent for nesting habitat on longleaf pines more than a century old (the woodpecker excavates cavities in rotting heartwood).

Much of the biological richness of longleaf forests - and the key to maintaining the whole ecosystem - lies less in the impressive trees than in the wiregrass-dominated understory. Wiregrass puts down roots up to several meters deep, enabling it to rebound quickly from fire. The tawny wiregrass, growing from knee- to waist-high, is the prime fuel that carries the fire longleaf needs to outcompete other vegetation. As many as 100 other species of less-dominant plants, including wildflowers and orchids, have been recorded growing in just a square meter of wiregrass.

Sharon Hermann, a leading longleaf ecosystem expert, calls it "this wonderfully pyrogenie landscape," and says she has come to think of fire in such forests as "not a disturbance ... more like the rainfall that shapes the rainforest - the defining characteristic of the system."

Everything from the flowering and seeding of the pines and their understory plants, to the nesting cycles of forest-floor birds, appears to have evolved in synch with frequent fire, researchers say. The pine itself, which looks so vulnerable in its initial grass stage, is actually quite well protected to survive burning. The needles (up to 9 inches on mature longleaf), form a protective heat barrier around the apical bud, nestled at the base of the fragile-looking seedling.

Restoring the trees is the easy part, says TNC's Seamon. "There is just so much we still don't know about the understory - even all the plants and insects that were originally part of it, and how they interacted."

"We're still on the cutting edge, learning new things every year about the ecosystem," says Seamon. "Meanwhile, we think if we plant pines and establish wiregrass, and restore frequent fire to the system with prescribed burns, we will have a functional longleaf forest, if not a full-fledged ecosystem."

Though there is a long way to go, longleaf clearly seems poised for a comeback. Research is on the increase, and the military, as well as state and federal forestry agencies, are making restoration a priority. There is also growing interest in planting longleaf on private timberland for its high-quality wood. Demand for longleaf seedlings now consistently outstrips the supply (65 million seedlings produced in 1996, according to the Longleaf Alliance).

A few years ago Stan Adams, North Carolina's head forester, was asked what made replanting longleaf worth all the effort. "Why not?" he replied. "It's high quality, it's a part of our culture and our history. It's the best pine we know. To bring it back is just the natural thing to do."

Tam Horton, an environmental columnist for The Baltimore Sun, is the author of An Island Out of Time. Dave Harp is a Baltimore-based freelance photographer.

RELATED ARTICLE: saving longleaf

More than one-third of the trees planted in American Forests' Global ReLeaf Forest projects to date have been longleaf pine. The restoration of this majestic ecosystem is critical, we believe, because of the importance historically of both longleaf and the wiregrass that protects it. Here's a look at our efforts to date. A number of the 15 sites below are multi-year projects; ones designated with a (1998) are being planted this year.

alabama CONECUH NATIONAL FOREST

The planting of more than 348,000 native longleaf in two projects at this forest north of Florida's Panhandle is part on an effort to rebuild the upland sandhill ecosystem and encourage the restoration of native plants and animals. Many of these species, such as the Indiana gray bat, gopher tortoise, and Eastern indigo snake, are listed as threatened, endangered, or sensitive.

CHOCCOLOCCO STATE FOREST/WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA

A total of 71,000 longleaf seedlings are among the species planted here to restore an area severely damaged by a 1993 snowstorm.

florida APALACHICOLA BLUFFS AND RAVINES PRESERVE (1998)

Located on Florida's Panhandle and considered a "crown jewel" preserve, this site is home to more than 15 threatened and endangered plant and animal species - some found nowhere else. Torreya State Park, home to the endangered torreya tree, is in this region also. A total of 225,000 longleaf seedlings will be planted at this site, owned by The Nature Conservancy.

BLACKWATER RIVER STATE FOREST (1998)

When Hurricane Opal destroyed acres of slash pine along Florida's Panhandle in 1996, foresters seized the chance to restore 637,280 native longleaf in five separate plantings at this site, enhancing the habitat for many rare and endangered plants and animals, including the red-cockaded woodpecker.

ECONOFINA CREEK WATER MANAGEMENT AREA

Considered one of Florida's most pristine waterways, Econofina has superb scenery, unique geologic and hydrologic features that make it a canoeing favorite, and now 160,000 young longleaf that reside there.

LAKE GEORGE REFORESTATION (1998)

A total of 117,000 longleaf will be planted on Lake George State Forest near Daytona Beach that had most recently been used for agriculture.

OCKLAWAHA PRAIRIE CONSERVATION AREA

This planting of 190,000 longleaf is part of an effort by the St. John's River Water Management District to restore rare sandhill communities via ecosystem management. AMERICAN FORESTS is dedicating its plantings there as a memorial to victims of the Chornobyl disaster.

WlTHLACOOCHEE STATE FOREST

Planting 75,000 trees to begin restoration of the longleaf ecosystem at this forest west of Orlando will provide habitat for threatened, endangered, and sensitive animal and plant species.

georgia TELFAIR COUNTY LANDFILL

Ten thousand longleaf planted here as part of a mix of species will provide habitat, reduce soil erosion, and provide a showcase for environmental education and ecosystem management techniques

louisiana KENTWOOD LANDFILL REFORESTATION

This planting of 3,000 longleaf, among other trees, will restore forest cover to an old dump site in Tangipahoa Parish.

KISATCHIE NATIONAL FOREST

The planting of 45,000 longleaf in this forest on Winn Ranger District, part of it bordering the Saline Bayou National Wild and Scenic River, will provide vital future habitat for red-cockaded woodpecker.

mississippi BLACK CREEK R.D.

Enhanced habitat for the threatened gopher tortoise was a key goal of this planting of 22,000 longleaf in DeSoto National Forest.

north carolina FISH DAY FIRE RESTORATION PROJECT

Red-cockaded woodpeckers will find a future home among the 10,000 longleaf pines planted on this tract in Croatan National Forest, site of a recent wildfire.

south carolina FRANCIS MARLON NATIONAL FOREST (1998)

Restoring the longleaf ecosystem in the wake of extensive damage by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 is the goal of this project, which will plant a total of 374,000 longleaf to create habitat for red-cockaded woodpecker, American chafseed, and other threatened species and provide quality wood products in the future. This site has been designated a Lorax Forest, with contributions from fans of the Dr. Suess tale going to aid restoration efforts here.

texas SAN JACINTO RANGER DISTRICT

This 95,000-seedling planting on the Sam Houston National Forest is part of an effort to restore longleaf to the southwestern-most portion of the tree's range. In addition to providing habitat for wild turkey, quail, and other wildlife species, the trees - planted in an area dedicated to environmental education and interpretation - will show the importance of the longleaf ecosystem.

want to help? Each $10 donation to Global ReLeaf Forests plants 10 trees. Specify the longleaf project your donation should benefit. American Forests sends a certificate to you or your gift receipt. Call 800/8735323.
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Title Annotation:longleaf pine; Global Releaf Forest project in Florida
Author:Horton, Tom
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jun 22, 1998
Words:2532
Previous Article:Trees suffer in '98 ice storms.
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