September 5, 2016|By Alterra Hetzel| Climate

America’s longleaf pine forests need our help. Historically, longleaf pine forests covered almost 60 million acres—from east Texas to southeast Virginia. Today only 3.4 million acres remain. Nearly 900 plant species are found in longleaf forests, and nowhere else in the world. Animals depend on healthy forests too; 26 federally listed endangered or threatened species are part of the longleaf ecosystem. That is why The Conservation Fund, via its Go Zero program, recently planted 160,000 trees across 450 acres of longleaf pine forests at Santee National Wildlife Refuge in Clarendon County, South Carolina. Working together with our corporate partners including U-Haul, MaCher, and PremiereTV, and alongside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we were able to restore forests, protect wildlife, clean the air and water, and provide important recreation for local communities and visitors.

Habitat loss is one of the greatest environmental challenges of our time. The good news is that South Carolina has committed to regional efforts to restore and protect native plant and wildlife species, particularly longleaf pine forests. The Santee National Wildlife Refuge was founded, in part, to protect native species, such as the 35 mammalian and 89 reptilian/amphibian native species that call this refuge home. It also serves as the southerly most migration point in the Atlantic Flyway, and is home to almost 300 bird species including ducks and geese each season.

AH SanteeNWR GoZero AzucenaPonce003Santee National Wildlife Refuge Manager Marc Epstein standing by a longleaf pine tree. Photo by Azucena Ponce. 

Protecting and restoring forestland is also an important, relatively easy and inexpensive way to control flooding and improve water quality for communities downstream. The Santee refuge spans 39 shoreline miles on Lake Marion, which is South Carolina’s largest lake with over 180 stream miles flowing out of it into downstream communities. Once restored, longleaf pine trees in Santee National Wildlife Refuge will help the soil to act as a sponge to absorb overflow from Lake Marion, while filtering and cleaning the floodwater. This will also help slow the water before it can damage local businesses and neighborhoods downstream.

Protecting and restoring longleaf pine forests is also an especially smart investment to make for our climate and cleaner air. This tree is resistant to fire and beetle infestation, thrives in wet and dry periods, and can withstand strong wind and weather events, increasing the likelihood that the trees will live to an old age and sequester carbon dioxide pollution for many years. In fact, longleaf pine can live more than 150 years and in some cases, can even live up to 450 years. While the Santee project is not a validated carbon project (though it could be with more funding), the completion of this longleaf pine restoration effort has the potential to clean the air of more than 60,000 metric tons of CO2 over the next 100 years.

AH DSC02701Newly planted longleaf pine saplings. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Beyond providing critically needed habitat, clean water and air, restoring Santee National Wildlife Refuge is also critical to driving dollars into the local economy and providing more economic opportunity for the community. The refuge serves the local economy in some very important and tangible ways through ecotourism and local spending by the refuge’s visitors. Restoring and protecting the Santee National Wildlife Refuge also provides the community with a gathering place where they can engage with each other, nature, and access local cultural and environmental education.

Protecting and restoring longleaf pine forests at Santee is part of a larger effort to restore the important longleaf pine ecosystems both regionally and nationally. In 2009, The Conservation Fund joined more than 20 nonprofits and government agencies to decide where to begin with longleaf pine restoration. The Fund’s team helped to draft the first maps showing where substantial acres of longleaf pine survived, tracing the outlines of the forest’s historical range. The graphics revealed where the best bets for longleaf expansion may lie.

Then, as part of America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative—a collaborative, public-private effort to restore 8 million acres by 2020—The Conservation Fund and RMS are planning the first large landscape-level model for re-establishing and conserving longleaf habitat on privately-owned land. By keeping the lands in timber production, this initiative will provide dual environmental and economic benefits. Funding for this initiative comes from a $5 million grant from the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and private funds from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) through Walmart’s Acres for America program.

Through all of these projects, The Conservation Fund is continuing its legacy of longleaf pine conservation with the support of public private partnerships. To restore longleaf pine back to the 60 million acres it once was, it will take a broad range of private, public, and business partnerships. Santee National Wildlife Refuge restoration adds to this effort and provides a special place where future generations, including my own children, can enjoy for years to come.