Longleaf Pine Forests: A Southern Treasure
Throughout the Southeast, a coordinated effort is underway to conserve and restore these rich and vital forests.
As fire rushes through the grasses of a longleaf pine forest, shrubs ignite in quick, hot bursts and the bark of the pine trees blackens. Younger longleafs, still in their grass stage, shield their precious buds from the heat with their long, tightly packed needles. Gopher tortoises are safe in their burrows. Insects take flight. The fire moves quickly through the grasses, and the trees are all the better for it.
This controlled burn at the Talisheek Preserve in Southeast Louisiana was set with drip torches by The Nature Conservancy’s Louisiana burn crew. Throughout the southeastern United States, TNC’s longleaf pine management relies on controlled burns to replace the natural fires that longleaf pine communities rely on. This crew burns up to 10,000 acres in Louisiana and Mississippi each year. Nearby neighborhoods have been notified to expect smoke—like many tracts of longleaf pine in the southeast, Talisheek is in the middle of a quickly developing region.
There is near-constant chatter over the burn crew’s walkie-talkies: updates on ignition locations, where the fire is moving, where the mop-up crew is headed. Today, there’s another thing to keep track of: kites. During its busy burn season this spring, Prescribed Fire Manager Bill Rivers noticed an awesome phenomenon. Dozens of swallow-tailed kites, with their distinctive forked tails, have been swooping in on the burns, flying low and plucking insects straight from the smoke.
“They fly so low, it’s almost like you can just reach up and scratch their bellies,” says Rivers. It seems the swallow-tailed kites instinctively know that the fire will send a fresh meal into the air, and they arrive at the first sign of smoke, a sure sign that fire is a natural part of the longleaf landscape.
A DIVERSE LANDSCAPE SHAPED BY FIRE
Longleaf pine was once the dominant plant community of the south, covering 90 million acres from Virginia to east Texas, through all of the states in TNC’s Southern U.S. Division. Rather than thick woods, healthy longleaf pine forests are more like savannas, characterized by diverse open grasslands. A great diversity of plant and animal species made up these longleaf pine forests across its historic range, but two features were ubiquitous—the presence of longleaf pine itself and the regular occurrence of low-intensity fire.
These once-vast longleaf forests provided timber to build colonial America, along with tar, pitch and turpentine to construct and maintain vessels throughout the era of wooden sailing ships. Demand for these products—combined with widespread clearcutting, development, and fire suppression—led to the near disappearance of longleaf from almost all its former range.
Today, less than 5% of the historic range remains intact. Longleaf pine forests benefit humans as well as wildlife. They support our freshwater systems, provide natural resilience to catastrophic storms, and help sustain the regional economy.
Longleaf pine itself is not rare, but the healthy longleaf pine community is. Without fire, competing trees and shrubs clog up the open grasslands and block out sunlight, dismantling the conditions that allow a healthy longleaf system to be one of the most biodiverse habitats in the world. To restore longleaf pine forests, fire itself is the greatest restoration tool we have.
AMBITIOUS RESTORATION, EXPERT MANAGEMENT
The Nature Conservancy has made it a goal to conserve and restore longleaf pine forests across the Southeast, with longleaf pine management being a key part of the forest programs in nine of TNC’s chapters. As urban development expands across the south, there is more pressure than ever to protect and restore longleaf.
This year, TNC has been working to restore longleaf at the Red Creek Preserve, which occupies approximately 3,000 acres in northern Jackson County, Mississippi. Here, the restoration process begins began with thinning the existing stand of loblolly pine and replanting those areas with longleaf seedlings. TNC has planted over 60,000 seedlings at Red Creek.
When fire is reintroduced, it can feel a bit like magic. “Opening it up, burning and letting the sunlight in, we see grasses and other plants coming back,” says Rebecca Stowe, TNC’s Director of Forest Programs in Mississippi. “You can see out across the Pascagoula River Valley from some of these hills, vistas you never would have seen before. Everything greened up after the burn, and wildlife is moving back in.”
Restored longleaf pine habitat has helped the survival of threatened and endangered species like red-cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoises, pine snakes, and dusky gopher frogs. In Florida, 47 zoo-raised eastern indigo snakes were released to the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, a restored longleaf pine landscape where the eastern indigo’s role as an apex predator had been notably absent.
In longleaf pine systems and beyond, The Nature Conservancy has been using fire as a restoration tool for decades and has expertly trained and certified burn crews throughout the country, restoring thousands of acres of fire-dependent forests each year.
Beyond its restoration power, fire represents one of our greatest opportunities to bring diversity to the conservation sphere. A controlled burn performed by an all-female crew at Disney Wilderness Preserve in 2019 is just one of many signs of a growing presence of women who are managing lands with fire and fighting wildfires.
Opportunities for women in conservation like the all-female controlled burn signal a new attitude that women and people from many walks of life have an important role to play in restoring and maintaining fire-dependent lands.
EXPANDING OUR IMPACT THROUGH PUBLIC PARTNERSHIPS
It’s beyond the power of a single organization to tackle a restoration challenge of this scale, which is why TNC has partnered with the government agencies, nonprofit organizations like the Longleaf Alliance and communities to magnify our collective impact on longleaf conservation and restoration.
The Nature Conservancy’s long-standing partnership with the Department of Defense began with longleaf pine conservation at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, in an effort to protect the then-endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. The partnership started in the mid-1990s and created a national model around other military bases called the Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) program.
Now, TNC works on longleaf pine at military bases throughout the south. In 2019, TNC received a grant through the Longleaf Stewardship Fund to accelerate longleaf pine conservation on more than 10,000 acres of public and private land in east-central Alabama and west-central Georgia, focusing on areas around Fort Benning and Tuskegee National Forest. At Camp Shelby in Mississippi, TNC restores longleaf pine and raises gopher tortoise hatchlings for release.
All of TNC’s longleaf restoration contributes to the America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative, a coordinated effort across nine states by federal and state agencies, nongovernment organizations, universities, private industry, and private landowners. This impressive coalition is on track to meet its ambitious goal to restore 8 million acres of longleaf across the Southeast by 2025.
HELPING PEOPLE RESTORE THEIR OWN FORESTS
Just as private development represents one of the greatest challenges facing longleaf forests, private conservation is perhaps the greatest opportunity. The Nature Conservancy has doubled down on working with private landowners to restore their own forested land. One such tool is a conservation easement, a legal agreement with the landowner that limits certain land uses and protects the property’s natural value.
The recent conservation easement on Groton Plantation is the largest private easement in South Carolina’s history. It connects 125,000 acres of protected lands that span both sides of the Savannah River. Property managers have been changing over tree stands from planted loblolly to native longleaf pine, a premium timber market and the preferred tree for red-cockaded woodpeckers to nest. “One of the best ways to keep water clean is to protect the land that surrounds it,” says Eric Krueger, lead freshwater scientist for TNC in South Carolina.
Engaging landowners with smaller tracts is one of the best ways to fill in the patchwork of conserved longleaf forest. While easements can offer the right economic incentive to implement conservation practices, TNC has started offering local Learn-to-Burn workshops to connect landowners to the resources they need to conduct prescribed burns themselves.
TNC has hosted four workshops in central and north Louisiana to help private landowners gain the skills and resources to apply fire and restore ground cover on their properties. “People who are old enough to know what these forests looked like a long time ago—they remember being kids out on their grandpa’s land that they have now inherited,” says Christopher Rice, TNC’s North Louisiana Conservation Practitioner. “Those are the people who really get it.”
Rice’s longterm goal is to organize landowners into prescribed burn associations (PBA), where landowners coordinate time and resources to collectively conduct controlled burns on each other’s properties. It’s a practice that has already taken hold in North Carolina.
The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to restore longleaf pine will create healthy habitat for threatened and endangered species, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and help conserve water resources. We will also restore a natural landscape with a history as rich and diverse as the grasses beneath its towering trees.