Two centuries ago, a forest beyond compare rolled like a dark green tide from Virginia into the Carolinas before fanning out across Georgia and Florida, through Alabama, Mississippi and deep into Texas. It was comprised of longleaf pine trees, including some standing 100 feet tall. It fueled our nation’s burgeoning economy and supported an unmatched abundance of plant and animal life.
America’s Heart Tree
At its peak, America’s longleaf pine forests covered more than 92 million acres—an area nearly as large as the state of California. But as America grew, so too did the pressure on longleaf pine. By the turn of the 20th century, most mature longleaf was gone, leaving a region that had long-depended upon forest resources struggling. Today, less than 4.4 million acres remain—a paltry 5 percent—making it one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America.
These forests are among the world’s most biologically diverse, home to hundreds of species of birds and 2,500 species of plants. Fire is the agent most responsible for this diversity. Fire molds and shapes the longleaf pine forest, stimulating seed germination of the trees and renewal of the rich plant life on the forest floor while reducing competition from less fire-proof challengers.
Longleaf plays a vital role in maintaining the long-term health of the region’s rivers, aquifers and freshwater springs. Much of the remaining longleaf pine can be found on Department of Defense installations, where it provides optimal training conditions and security against wildfires that are the frequent byproduct of military training. And the forest industry remains a critical economic engine for the Southeastern United States, generating billions of dollars in revenue annually and supporting thousands of jobs.
Forests of the past and Future
While we can’t turn back the clock, we can protect what’s left and, with thoughtful planning and unprecedented levels of cooperation, we can reclaim a piece of what we’ve lost.
After 30 years of planning, managing and restoring longleaf sites, The Nature Conservancy is uniquely positioned at the vanguard of the longleaf conservation effort. Today, the Conservancy is the largest private landowner of longleaf pine, with more than 156,000 acres under management through ownership or easement, including staffed restoration projects in all nine states of the historic range. No other private group can match the Conservancy’s on-the-ground experience and expertise in all aspects of longleaf pine restoration, from groundcover restoration and replanting to computer modeling and fire management.
The Conservancy is also leading efforts by working collaboratively with the forestry industry to develop mutually beneficial strategies to preserve large forest tracts throughout the range of longleaf pine. And by working with the Department of Defense in places like Fort Benning, Fort Polk and Fort Bragg, the Conservancy is helping to preserve military operations—and the critical economic benefits they generate in local communities—by creating strategic buffers around key training areas that protect longleaf pine forests.
It will take a bold vision and people of action to help restore America’s longleaf pine forests. The Nature Conservancy is committed to leading the charge.