Land & Water Stories

Longleaf Pine: A Tree for Our Time

Throughout the Southeast, a coordinated effort is underway to conserve and restore these rich and vital forests.

The sun's rays stream from behind a cloud over a longleaf pine forest at Disney Wilderness Preserve.
Longleaf Pine These forests once dominated the Southeastern U.S. coastal plain, blanketing more than 90 million acres. © Roberto Gonzalez

Spanning nine states in the U.S. southeast, we’re working together to restore and manage longleaf pine forest from Texas to Virginia. Longleaf pine once dominated the coastal plain blanketing more than 90 million acres. Today there are just 5.2 million acres, up from an historical low of 3.2 million acres two decades ago.

Longleaf pine sapling stands against a forest of mature longleaf pine trees.
Mighty Tree Prized for its hardiness, longleaf pine trees were frequently used for ship construction and production of tar and turpentine. © Erika Nortemann / TNC

Longleaf pine played an important role in America’s history. In Colonial times, pine pitch was a major component in ship construction. “Naval stores”—tar and turpentine derived from longleaf pine sap—were used to waterproof ships. North Carolina got its nickname the “Tarheel State” because of that work. No doubt, many of the people who cheer, and boo, the Carolina Tarheels teams have no idea where that nickname originated. Longleaf pine was also crucial to victory in World War II. Troops landing on the beach at Normandy arrived in Higgins Landing Crafts constructed out of longleaf pine from Louisiana.

Threats to Longleaf Pine

Factors causing longleaf loss:

  • Fire Suppression

    Longleaf is fire dependent—it needs regular fires to thrive. The region’s earliest land managers, Indigenous People, understood this and set fires to improve forest health. Early colonists followed suit. But during the last century, the use of fire as a management tool was strongly discouraged throughout North America.

  • Development

    Longleaf pine is found in some of the country’s fastest growing regions. These locations are prime for modern development. Witness the number of subdivisions that have some iteration of longleaf or pine in their names.

  • Logging

    Much of the historical loss of longleaf was due to logging. Today TNC and other conservation partners encourage sustainable forestry practices for economic and environmental health. Longleaf wood is still valued in construction due to its strength and durability. Selective thinning operations can improve longleaf forest stands and benefit private landowners financially. Some salvage operators bring longleaf that was lost centuries ago on its way to mills from river bottoms and the wood is still intact and valued for construction.

Stands of longleaf pine growing up out of savanna ground cover.
Longleaf in Savanna Longleaf pine trees thrive in variable landscapes and climates, including savanna. © Mark Daniels
Ground level view of a young longleaf pine against a forest of mature trees.
Bottlebrush Young longleaf pine trees go through the bottlebrush stage before they rocket skyward to become strong and resilient against the fires native to their landscape. © Ralph Pace
Longleaf in Savanna Longleaf pine trees thrive in variable landscapes and climates, including savanna. © Mark Daniels
Bottlebrush Young longleaf pine trees go through the bottlebrush stage before they rocket skyward to become strong and resilient against the fires native to their landscape. © Ralph Pace

Longleaf Pine: A Tree for Our Time

Now more than ever, it is important that we double down on longleaf restoration. A changing climate means more hurricanes and other strong storms. The dual threats of climate change and biodiversity loss are impacting both people and nature on a large scale. With a changing climate comes periods of drought and accompanying wildfires. Nature can play a role in making the region more resilient to these impacts. Longleaf pine thrives in harsh variable climates and provides habitat for many threatened and endangered species—making it the perfect tree for our time.

Colette DeGarady is all about longleaf pine, leading TNC’s efforts to restore longleaf forests. Although the numbers are still small compared to their historical level, DeGarady sees promise because TNC’s efforts are paying off. Now she and her team are working to keep that momentum going.

Aerial view of prescribed burn at Calloway Forest Preserve in North Carolina. The fire moves over the ground cover and leaves the trees intact.
Fire Adapted Fire is a regular and necessary occurrence in longleaf pine forests and is necessary for the trees' survival. © Margaret Fields

Working to Grow and Manage Longleaf

TNC's approach to protection

  • Acquisition

    TNC protects property across the longleaf range. Some of these sites contain spectacular examples of intact longleaf habitat while others require different degrees of restoration.

  • Restoration

    Many longleaf pine forests were logged and replaced with commercial forest trees such as loblolly and slash pine. TNC restores these sites with longleaf pine and has planted millions of longleaf seedlings across the Southeast.

  • Management

    Longleaf needs fire to thrive and survive. TNC conducts controlled burns on its own lands and assists partners to put more fire on their land.

Igniting Inspiration for Women in Fire (3:31) This video features an all-female controlled burn of the longleaf pine habitat at Florida's Disney Wilderness Preserve. Women are making inroads into leadership and management of controlled burns, a traditionally male-dominated field.

TNC manages preserves across the longleaf range that serve as living laboratories for restoration. One of the most visited of these preserves is TNC's Disney Wilderness Preserve near Orlando, Florida. Visitors to that preserve and others scattered across the region can see longleaf pine forests, learn about its management and see some of the cool creatures who make their homes in longleaf pine.

Visitors may be inclined to look up at the majestic, iconic trees, but much of the longleaf forest’s diverse beauty is on the ground.

Working with Partners

TNC also works with a variety of conservation partners including the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state game, forestry and park agencies, and the Department of Defense.

Our work with the Department of Defense was pioneered at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The military wants to ensure that development doesn’t encroach on base boundaries hindering the mission of the world’s largest military training facility. So far, the Department of Defense and TNC have protected 24,000 acres, buffering 48 miles of military training land boundary in the NC Sandhills that is vital longleaf habitat. This work has been replicated elsewhere including Fort Benning, Georgia and Camp Shelby, Mississippi.  

We are also working with private landowners. This is very important because approximately 86% of the forestland in the Southeast is owned by private landowners.

Jesse Wimberly is one of those private landowners. Wimberly has managed his family’s Lighterwood Farm in the North Carolina Sandhills for three decades. Recently, with TNC’s assistance, he has created a Prescribed Burn Association to help private landowners manage their longleaf. Wimberly’s farm is an ode to longleaf, named after lighterwood —the heartwood of longleaf pine, which is filled with turpentine that makes for great kindling.

Red cockaded woodpecker on a pine tree.
Red-cockaded woodpecker These small birds thrive in the longleaf pine habitat. © Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission

Longleaf Pine Is Home to Rare Plants and Animals

Wimberly and other longleaf lovers hope to coax back rare plants and animals to their land. Red-cockaded woodpeckers are the best known of the animals that thrive primarily in longleaf forests. These tiny birds were once common throughout the longleaf range, but their population declined in tandem with longleaf forest destruction. In the past few years, however, their numbers have grown due to the emphasis on restoring longleaf across the range. 

Eastern indigo snake in an S shape in the grass.
Eastern indigo snake This magnificent species thrives in the longleaf pine habitat. © Katie Gomes

Eastern indigo snakes are another rare longleaf species, once found throughout Florida, Georgia, Southern Alabama, and southeastern Mississippi. They can grow up to nine feet in length, making them the longest snake native to the United States. These non-venomous snakes prey upon venomous snakes and are particularly beautiful with blue black scales reminiscent of Wonder Woman’s hair. TNC is working on a 10-year plan to reintroduce this apex predator to Florida’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve.

Gopher Tortoise entering a sandy burrow.
Gopher tortoise These native tortoises dig burrows in the longleaf pine habitat, providing shelter for numerous other species. © FWC

Gopher tortoises are also confined to the southern longleaf range. They are one of only five tortoises native to North America and the only native tortoise east of the Mississippi. Gopher tortoises originated in North America 60 million years ago, making them one of the oldest living species. They spend a lot of time underground in their burrows, which can be more than 30 feet long. These creatures may not look important, but they are a keystone species; more than 350 other species including the Eastern indigo snake depend on their burrows for shelter.

Close up of a Venus fly trap growing on a longleaf pine forest floor.
Venus Flytrap This carnivorous plant only occurs in longleaf pine habitat. © Skip Pudney

Probably the most well-known denizen of longleaf forest is the carnivorous Venus flytrap, which naturally occurs in a small area roughly 75 miles around Wilmington, North Carolina. This plant, which Charles Darwin once called the “most wonderful in the world” and which served as the inspiration for Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors,” is one of many plants that occur only in longleaf pine habitat. TNC’s Green Swamp Preserve is home to flytraps and 13 other carnivorous plant species and more than 30 different orchid species—witness to the diversity of longleaf understory.

How You Can Help Save Longleaf Pine

Longleaf pine forests are fascinating places—home to an amazing array of plants and animals. They can also play a vital role in the southeast, providing a natural defense to climate change. That’s why TNC is focused on restoring longleaf forest across the region. You can help us with this work. Support longleaf pine planting through TNC’s Plant a Billion Trees Program

View of longleaf pine treetops against a colorful sunset captured in the clouds.
The beauty of longleaf pine The stately trees stand tall against the setting sun. © Chelsea MacKenzie/TNC
Forest of mature longleaf pine trees at dusk with an orange sky.
At Day's End Nature's magnificence on display with longleaf pine trees against an orange sky at dusk. © Carlton Ward Jr.
The beauty of longleaf pine The stately trees stand tall against the setting sun. © Chelsea MacKenzie/TNC
At Day's End Nature's magnificence on display with longleaf pine trees against an orange sky at dusk. © Carlton Ward Jr.

Places Where You Can Visit a Longleaf Pine Forest

Another way you can help is to visit one of TNC's preserves that is home to restored longleaf pine habitat.

A firefighter in protective gear uses a drip torch to start a controlled burn.
PUTTING FIRE ON THE GROUND - Nature Conservancy fire worker Char’rese Finney uses a drip torch to start a controlled burn to manage a longleaf pine forest in central Florida. © Carlton Ward Jr.

Longleaf Pine Depends on Fire

Longleaf pine needs fire at regular intervals to reproduce. Controlled burns stimulate the “rocket stage” and the young pine shoots skyward, growing several feet in a little as 18 months, safe above the fire line. Fire literally stimulates the next generation and continuously maintains the forest habitat for it to thrive. Learn about controlled burning and support it in your community.  

Advocacy Plan

TNC's Longleaf Whole System Advocacy Plan

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