In Virginia, more than 1 million acres of longleaf forest extended south from the James River when English settlers arrived in 1607. The trees were the backbone of America’s naval stores, providing masts, waterproof pitch and turpentine. Their “heart pine” provided the frames and floors for colonial homes and businesses.
This sprawling longleaf forest, which helped found the Virginia colony, was harvested to near extinction by 1893. In 2005, a sliver of just 200 native trees remained in Virginia.
But a new era of restoration is turning the tide.
LIFE CYCLE OF THE LONGLEAF
As a seedling, longleaf looks more like a clump of grass than the slender, towering tree it will become. This grass stage can last from one year to a dozen, depending on competition for resources with other plants.
The young longleaf isn’t very impressive above ground, but makes up for its lack of height by putting down a massive root system. Energy stored below ground and lush thick needles help the seedling survive fire events.
At the bottlebrush stage, the tree grows three to four feet straight up with no branches. After a few years, branches emerge and a sapling is born. After 30 years, the longleaf is finally ready to reproduce, dropping huge pine cones, and the cycle begins anew.
ERA OF RESTORATION
The Nature Conservancy purchased a 2,700-acre tract of pineland in Sussex County, Virginia from the Hancock Timber Resource Group in 1998 to create Piney Grove Preserve.
Our mission was to restore the property to a pine savanna, showcasing the remarkable biological diversity of southeastern Virginia’s longleaf forests. Since our first purchase, we’ve expanded the preserve and adjacent public lands to more than 10,000 acres in partnership with the commonwealth
Longleaf pine trees vanished from Piney Grove and adjacent lands many years ago, but guided by science, the Conservancy and our partners are gradually restoring the tree to its former prominence. This effort involves selectively harvesting patches of the existing forest—primarily loblolly pine—to create forest openings suitable for planted longleaf seedlings to grow.
Maintaining these forest openings requires the use of fire, a natural disturbance that has shaped Southern pine forests for millions of years. A highly trained Conservancy fire management team works closely with state and federal agencies and highly trained volunteers to implement safe, effective controlled burns on southeastern Virginia preserves.
The longleaf trees we plant at Piney Grove are grown from seeds of native Virginia trees for optimal seedling survival and growth. We also conduct plantings in close partnership with Virginia’s departments of Conservation and Recreation, Forestry, and Game and Inland Fisheries to restore longleaf on the state’s public lands.
Private landowners like Conservancy partner Bill Owen have hosted some of the largest planting projects in Virginia. From 2003 to 2013, Owen worked with the Conservancy and our partners to plant 830 acres of longleaf on his property in the Raccoon Creek Pinelands project area.
In addition, Owen has placed his entire 1,850-acre property under conservation easement with the Conservancy to ensure it will always be managed for its ecological diversity.
VIRGINIA’S RAREST BIRD
Longleaf forests are among the world’s most biologically diverse, home to hundreds of species of birds and 920 plant species found nowhere else on Earth.
The signature creature of Southern pine forests is the red-cockaded woodpecker, and Piney Grove harbors Virginia's only established breeding population—the northernmost population in the U.S. Listed as endangered in 1970, this bird nests exclusively in live pines and requires mature trees with soft heartwood for excavating nest cavities.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers once numbered in the hundreds of thousands across the Southeast and up into New Jersey, but the loss of old-growth pine habitat led to a dramatic decline.
Beginning in 2001, woodpeckers captured from stable populations in the Carolinas were released at Piney Grove to boost the number of breeding colonies.
Biologists from the Center for Conservation Biology have documented modern-day highs at Piney Grove for the numbers of breeding pairs and fledglings. Approximately 70 red-cockaded woodpeckers now call Piney Grove home.
RETURNING FIRE, RETURNING FOREST
Open pine savannas, especially longleaf, evolved naturally over many centuries as lightning strikes and Native American burning made fire a regular part of the landscape. With support from numerous partners, The Conservancy has worked since 1999 to return fire to Piney Grove.
Our fire team carefully plans and conducts prescribed burns across the preserve, revisiting previously burned areas every two to four years to mimic the historic frequency of fire. Many native plant species depend on fire to reveal bare mineral soil, stimulate seed germination and reduce competition from shrubs and faster-growing tree species. Planted longleaf seedlings on the preserve thrive after being burned.
In 2017, nearly 40 fire team members from The Nature Conservancy and an alphabet soup of agencies collaborated to undertake a record setting burn at Piney Grove. Participating partners included the Virginia departments of Conservation and Recreation (Natural Heritage Program), Game and Inland Fisheries, and Forestry, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a team of young AmeriCorps volunteers.
Fire crews on the ground and in the sky successfully burned more than 1,800 acres owned by both the Conservancy and the state of Virginia. The controlled burn was the largest ever ignited at Piney Grove.
Looking Forward to the Future
Two centuries ago, longleaf pine forests rolled like a dark green tide across the southeastern United States. More than 92 million acres extended from Virginia and down into the Carolinas before fanning out across the Gulf states and reaching deep into Texas.
While we can’t turn back the clock, we can protect what’s left. And with thoughtful planning and collaboration with partners, we can also reclaim some of what we’ve lost. At The Nature Conservancy, we’re committed to leading the charge to restore Virginia’s founding forest.