Longleaf pines once covered most of the southern United States. The straight, lofty trees shelter other plants and animals. Native Americans weave their foot-long needles into baskets.
But by the 1990s, logging and clear-cutting wiped out most of the pines and the grasslands beneath. Only a small number of the trees remained in areas that were too wet or dry to farm. The trees’ absence disrupted the surrounding ecosystem. Now some people are planting more.
The trees faced another problem too. For decades, the U.S. Forest Service managed forest fires by suppressing them, even in remote areas. That strategy had short-term benefits but long-term consequences. Longleaf seeds must touch the ground to sprout. Forest fires clear away debris and fertilize the ground for the seeds. And fires kill shrubs and hardwood trees that block sunlight from tender seedlings, grasses, and wildflowers.
If one part of God’s intricately designed creation is removed, the rest may suffer. Hundreds of plant and animal species are found only in longleaf forests. Nearly 30 species are now endangered or threatened. Dozens more are under consideration for protection.
Two Auburn University forestry professors came to the rescue. Rhett Johnson and Dean Gjerstad founded The Longleaf Alliance in 1995. They spread the word about the tree’s importance.
The alliance, government agencies, nonprofits, and other partners started working together. In 2010, they launched America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative. Their aim was to have 12,500 square miles of longleaf by 2025. Now they’re over halfway to reaching that goal.
“I like to say we rescued longleaf from the dustbin. I don’t think we had any idea how successful we’d be,” says Johnson.
Longleaf pines will never cover the South like they once did. But after centuries, their numbers are growing instead of shrinking.
The effort can help landowners too. When longleaf pines flourish, landowners can profit from activities such as hunting and wildlife photography rather than only from occasional timber harvests. And the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas planted about 400 acres of longleaf for their needles. With their needle harvest restored, they’ll be able to continue creating their traditional crafts. That will help economically sustain the tribe and maintain a valued aspect of their heritage.
The work isn’t over yet. Another 5,160 square miles must be planted or reclaimed from stands mixed with other trees to meet the 2025 deadline. Alliance president Carol Denhof says, “I’m hopeful we can get there but . . . we have a lot of work to do.”