Magazine article American Forests

Longleaf Redux

Magazine article American Forests

Longleaf Redux

Article excerpt

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. …

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