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North Carolina

Here’s to the Land of the Longleaf Pine

Longleaf pine forests are central to North Carolina's history and ecology, and the Conservancy is working to secure their future.

The longleaf pine occupies a special place in North Carolina. The state’s toast hails the “land of the longleaf pine.” The state’s highest civilian honor is the Order of the Longleaf Pine. But, many North Carolinians have never seen a longleaf pine.

That’s true across the southeastern United States. Longleaf pine once blanketed 90 million acres of coastal plain and sandhills from Texas to Virginia. Today longleaf pine occupies less than five million of those acres.

Bill Pickens, who has spent 25 years managing pine for the North Carolina Forest Service, doesn’t talk so much about the “land of the longleaf pine.” He prefers to talk about “the forest that fire built.” That’s because the tree is fire-dependent. Without fire longleaf pine forest won’t survive and thrive. And, neither will all its forest compatriots. Sadly, the federal government had its most successful public service campaign with the ever popular Smoky Bear whose message was that all fire was bad.

Dan Ryan, who leads the North Carolina Chapter’s longleaf program, says development also led to the demise of longleaf. “Use Brunswick County as an example,” he explains. “Around 70 percent of the county is wetlands. The remaining 30 percent is uplands. That’s where the longleaf live. But, that’s also where people want to develop. Longleaf is truly at a disadvantage because they are where people want to live.”

In the past five years, the Conservancy has planted more than 700,000 longleaf seedlings. Each year it burns thousands of acres of longleaf forest. And, it has bought thousands of acres of forest that once was home to longleaf but are now filled with other pine trees such as loblolly planted by businesses looking for short term financial gain. The loblolly pine is fast growing; in a couple of decades it is ready for the pulp mill. The longleaf takes a hundred years to mature. No one who plants a longleaf seedling today expects to see it as mature tree.

Longleaf is taking on new importance with a changing climate. A tree that thrives from the Deep South to Virginia can adapt to a hotter environment. A tree with an incredible root structure can survive stronger storms that accompany climate change.

Robert Abernethy, who is president of the Longleaf Alliance, hopes the tree is on its way back. “In 2009, we recorded our first increase in longleaf pine acres,” he explains.

At its lowest point, longleaf pine had shrunk to just 3 million acres out of its historic 90 million acre range. Today, it covers 4.4 million acres. “Is this the twilight of the longleaf pine, or the new dawn?” asks Abernethy?



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