Mapping The Future Of Longleaf Pine
Young longleaf pine trees. Photo by John S. Quarterman/Flickr
Did You Know?
- Longleaf needles can grow 10 to 16 inches long.
- Almost 900 plant species are found only in longleaf pine forests.
- There are as many as 40 to 50 different plant species in one square meter of longleaf forest.
- 170 of the 290 reptile and amphibian species found in the Southeast live in the longleaf ecosystem.
- Less than 3% of the original 90 million acres of this unique forest remains.
- The longleaf pine is the official state tree of Alabama.
Source: America's Longleaf Initiative
Two hundred years ago, the “piney woods” of folk songs were a vast forest sweeping across 90 million acres from Virginia to Texas. The longleaf pine tree towered over the South, sheltering the white-top pitcher plant and the red-cockaded woodpecker in the open, park-like spaces beneath its branches. Settlers favored the pine’s fire-resistant wood for cabins, and the new national navy sailed under its solid timber and resinous pitch.
Today, longleaf pine survives in fragmented patches across its former range. Less than three percent of the unique forest remains—generating mulch for gardeners, a playground for nature seekers and a barrier against devastating fires that may multiply as our climate changes. The shrinking stands of trees still contain one of the most diverse gatherings of animals and plants outside the tropical rainforest, including 29 threatened and endangered species.
In 2009, The Conservation Fund joined more than 20 nonprofits and government agencies in America’s Longleaf Initiative to rebuild this vibrant landscape across the Southeast. At the start of a 15-year plan to nearly triple the longleaf pine’s reach, from 3.4 million acres to 8 million acres, the Fund is providing answers to one critical question:
Where to begin?
Using the tools of 21st century mapmaking, the Fund’s team helped draft the first maps to show where substantial acres of longleaf pine survive, tracing the outlines of the forest’s historical range. The graphics reveal where the best bets for longleaf expansion may lie.
“If the plan is to add another 5 million acres of longleaf over the next 20 years, a good map helps us know where the money should get invested to do that 5 million acres’ worth of work,” says Will Allen, the Fund’s Director of Strategic Conservation. “Until now, we only had a rough sense of where those investments should go.”
The maps give an overall idea of total acreage. Now, the Fund wants to know exactly where existing acres of longleaf are and whether they are good stands, Allen says. With detailed maps, conservationists can hone in on priority stands for saving, those that can be sustainably logged and other opportunities for economic investment.
With history in hand, Allen was hit by how little of the longleaf pine remains. “If every now and then you see stands of the longleaf pine, you don’t get a sense of how much we’ve lost.” But he strikes a hopeful note for the future. The Department of Defense provides a good model for preserving longleaf habitat, particularly around military installations in the Southeast. If other partners follow suit, longleaf habitat—and the entire region—will benefit.