North Carolina

The Longleaf Pine Whole System

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

Longleaf pine forests are one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, containing rare plants and animals not found anywhere else. The understory throughout the longleaf range contains from 150 to 300 species of groundcover plants per acre, more breeding birds than any other southeastern forest type, about 60 percent of the amphibian and reptile species found in the Southeast—many of which are only found in longleaf forest—and at least 122 endangered or threatened plant species. Some of the showiest and best known species occur in this region including Venus flytraps, federally endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, native orchids, and fox squirrels. 

Longleaf pine once blanketed 90 million acres of coastal plain and sandhills from Texas to Virginia.  At its lowest point, longleaf pine had shrunk to just 3 million acres out of its historic 90 million acre range. Why the loss?

When Bill Pickens, who has spent 25 years managing pine for the North Carolina Forest Service, talks about the longleaf pine he talks about “the forest that fire built” That’s because the tree is fire-dependent. As you'll read below, longleaf pines aren’t able to survive and thrive without fire. And, neither are its forest compatriots. Sadly, the federal government had its most successful public service campaign with Smokey Bear and his memorable message, "only you can prevent forest fire." Although Smokey's slogan is now "only you can prevent wildfires," the damage public opinion being against having any type of fire in the forest has been drastically felt.

Along with public opinion, Dan Ryan--who leads the North Carolina Chapter’s longleaf program--says development has led the way 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 live 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. It has bought thousands of acres of forest that was once home to longleaf, but are now filled with other pine trees such as loblolly. Because loblolly pine is fast growing, only needing a couple decades before its ready for the pulp mill, businesses looking for short term financial gain prefer it. Longleaf pine, in contrast, take a hundred years to mature. No one who plants a longleaf seedling today expects to see it as a mature tree, so there's less immediate profit.

Today, with concentrated effort, the longleaf pine has rebounded to cover 4.4 million acres. 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. “Is this the twilight of the longleaf pine, or the new dawn?” We think, with your help, it can be the new dawn.


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