Stories in Virginia

Virginia's Founding Forest

Restoring longleaf pine forests, returning fire to the landscape and supporting habitat for Virginia's rarest bird, the red-cockaded woodpecker.

An open pine savanna of tall, widely spaced pine trees with a low understory of thick ferns.
Piney Grove Pine savanna at Virginia's Piney Grove Preserve. © Robert B. Clontz / TNC

The story of Virginia's founding forest spans many eras. Pollen dating, or palynology, records a climate-driven transition from boreal forest to pine savanna. This was followed by at least 5,000 years of Indigenous stewardship, as native communities used fire to shape the landscape.

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 colonial America’s naval stores, providing masts, waterproof pitch and turpentine—much of it produced through the labor of enslaved individuals.

This sprawling longleaf forest was harvested to near extinction by 1893. In 2005, a sliver of just 200 native trees remained in Virginia. 

A new era of restoration is turning the tide.

Ground eye view of a freshly planted longleaf pine seedling. It resembles a small tuft of long grass.
Longleaf Pine A newly planted longleaf seedling, Raccoon Creek Pinelands, VA. © Daniel White / TNC

An 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, TNC and 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. 

A smiling man, landowner and TNC donor Bill Owen, holds a longleaf pine seedling during a planting day on his property.
Planting Partners From 2003 to 2013, landowner Bill Owen worked with TNC and our partners to plant 830 acres of longleaf on his property in the Raccoon Creek Pinelands project area. © Daniel White / TNC

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.

Restoring Longleaf

Guided by science, TNC and partners are gradually restoring longleaf to its former prominence.

A worker carries a white tote full of longleaf pine seedlings. He is stooping over to plant a seedling in a prepared hole.
Grounds eye view of a longleaf seedling with long needles that resemble grass.
A longleaf seedling at the bottle brush stage in the middle of a mature forest. The bushy top of the seedling resembles a brush.
A stand of 6 to 10 foot longleaf saplings closely spaced together.
A longleaf pinecone with tag reading in part, "You are holding a piece of native history. Longleaf pine is Virginia's 'Founding Forest'."

Home Grown

As restoration efforts gained momentum in the early 2000s, preserving the unique genetics of Virginia's remaining native longleafs became a priority. Seeds were collected in Virginia and grown in North Carolina, which has well-established longleaf pine nursery capacity. In 2017, the Virginia Department of Forestry installed equipment at their Garland Gray Nursery to enable the process to be completed in-state. 

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 Wildlife Resources to restore longleaf on the state’s public lands.

Private landowners like TNC partner Bill Owen have hosted some of the largest planting projects in Virginia. From 2003 to 2013, Owen worked with TNC 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 TNC to ensure it will always be managed for its ecological diversity. 

A small bird with white speckled brown wings perches on the side of a pine tree.
Red-cockaded Woodpecker A red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) in a restored longleaf pine forest. © Carlton Ward Jr.

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 (RCW); Piney Grove harbors one of the northernmost breeding populations 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.

Banding Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers (1:07) Welcoming Piney Grove's latest generation of red-cockaded woodpeckers.
Days old featherless woodpecker chicks sit on a red towel after being banded with color coded identification bands.
Red-cockaded woodpecker Newly banded red-cockaded woodpecker chicks at Virginia's Piney Grove Preserve. © Robert B. Clontz / TNC

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.

In 2019, Piney Grove's woodpeckers reached another milestone. In only sixteen years, the population has grown large enough—and stable enough—to help support a new colony at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

A single pair of hatch-year birds, including a male and female, were moved from Piney Grove to Great Dismal during the falls of 2017, 2018 and 2019. In September 2020, TNC and partners translocated two pairs of woodpeckers, bringing the total transfer to ten individuals to date.

Intensive habitat management by Virginia's Department of Wildlife Resources at neighboring Big Woods Wildlife Management Area has also been paying dividends for RCW recovery.

In 2017, DWR and TNC biologists discovered a banded male RCW with an active cavity on Big Woods WMA; the bird had originated from the Piney Grove population. This was the first documented occurrence of an individual or cavity on the WMA, demonstrating that DWR’s restoration efforts were making a difference and Piney Grove’s woodpeckers were finding the expanded habitat they need—even ahead of the timeline DWR biologists expected. By January 2023, it’s estimated that between five and seven RCWs are using the Big Woods habitat.

Taken together, these milestones in the recovery of this species in Virginia is a sign that investment in aggressive management during the early 2000s is paying off.

A woman wearing yellow fire retardant gear carries a drip torch through a pine forest during a controlled burn.
Piney Grove An AmeriCorps crew member uses a drip torch for ignition during a controlled burn at Piney Grove Preserve. © Kyle LaFerriere

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, TNC 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 TNC 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), Wildlife Resources 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 TNC 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.