February 6, 2017|By Andrew Schock and Ryan Mitchell| Partnerships

When European explorers set foot on what is today America’s Southeast region, they traveled through open, park-like forests with large pine trees towering over a grass- and flower-filled understory. These longleaf pine forests covered more than 90 million acres and stretched from present-day southern Virginia to eastern Texas and partially down the Florida peninsula – the largest area dominated by a single tree species on North America.

This exceptionally strong and resilient wood was an essential building material that formed the backbone of the American Industrial Revolution. It was used in the construction of everything from factories and ships to the Brooklyn Bridge and George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Though longleaf pine was a preferred source of timber for construction, it grows slower than other pine species. As a result, once harvested, the land was either converted to agricultural and other uses or replanted with other quicker-growing trees. But by the mid-1990s, longleaf pine forests had been reduced to approximately 3 million acres—representing an almost 97% decline from its original range. In comparison, the Amazon Rainforest saw a 20% decline in total size during the same period.

2 6 Range wide mapSignificant Landscapes for longleaf conservation are regions where there is the potential to restore connected landscapes of over 100,000 acres of longleaf pine communities. These significant landscapes were developed from expert opinion and numerous data layers on the occurrence of longleaf forests and the rare and unique species found in this ecosystem. The circles are scaled to represent existing longleaf. Map courtesy http://www.americaslongleaf.org/resources/maps/

It became evident that no organization could stop and reverse the loss of longleaf pine forests on its own. Partnerships were needed to ensure the restoration of the longleaf ecosystem. In 1995, The Longleaf Alliance was created with the express purpose of coordinating a partnership between private landowners, forest industries, state and federal agencies, conservation groups, researchers, and other enthusiasts interested in managing and restoring longleaf pine forests for their ecological, recreational, and economic benefits. The mission of the Alliance is to ensure a sustainable future for the longleaf pine ecosystem through partnerships, landowner assistance, and science-based education and outreach.

In 2005, The America's Longleaf Restoration Initiative (ARLI) began a further collaborative effort of public and private partners, including The Conservation Fund and the Longleaf Alliance, to restore and conserve longleaf across its historic range. ARLI set a goal to increase longleaf to 8 million acres by 2025. To achieve this goal, the pace of longleaf conservation will need to continue to grow, and it will be critical to engage with large commercial timber landowners that own much of the land within the historic range.

Thanks to the work of many partners, the decline has not only slowed but is actually reversing. Researchers estimate that there are now more than 4.7 million acres of longleaf pine forests across the southern United States as of 2015. However, even though acres of longleaf habitat are increasing, the ecosystem still faces many threats. Development, fragmentation, mismanagement, and land-use conversion continually threaten the longleaf ecosystem. One of the most significant threats is fire exclusion and altered fire regimes—as the open characteristics of longleaf forests were historically caused by frequent fires that crept across the landscape.

The partners are working together successfully on many critical projects, including the examples below. 

Coastal Headwaters Forest, Alabama and Florida

A prime example of a successful partnership at work on a landscape scale is the Coastal Headwaters Forest project in Alabama and Florida, where The Conservation Fund is partnering with a timber investment management organization, Resource Management Service, to conserve and restore up to 205,000 acres with a perpetual, working forest conservation easement. This is potentially the largest longleaf restoration effort on private lands in history, and it will serve as a model for other large commercial forest owners to do the same. It also provides forest-related jobs and will expand markets for longleaf pine products. Prescribed fire, which mimics a natural process vital to the longleaf ecosystem, will be reintroduced to the landscape on a 4-year interval at minimum. In addition to the protection from conversion, the forest will protect vital wildlife habitat and five major river watersheds.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has committed funds to the Coastal Headwaters Forest effort, via its Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), leveraged 1:1 in non-federal contributions. In addition, Congress is currently deciding on funding levels for the USDA Forest Legacy Program, which could provide funding for both the Florida and Alabama portions of Coastal Headwaters Forest. More than 30 partners, including the Florida Forest Service and the Alabama Forestry Commission, will continue to consider funds and resources to advance this opportunity to protect longleaf pine at a large scale.

2 6 CoastalHeadwatersGeorgia LaurenDay019Coastal Headwaters Forest provides a variety of habitat types, including longleaf pine forests, ephemeral ponds, and bottomland hardwood forests, with numerous streams and creeks feeding into major rivers. Photo by Lauren Day.

Sansavilla Property, Georgia

Also in the works in the region, The Fund is helping the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conserve the 19,577-acre forested Sansavilla property, with federal funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), and anticipated funding from the USDA Forest Legacy Program. In partnership with the LLA and the Local Implementation Team, the Fund and the DNR are restoring key sites back to longleaf, benefitting the approximately 400 threatened gopher tortoises living in what is currently the largest unprotected tract of critical habitat remaining in the Altamaha River corridor. The DoD’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program has also prioritized the conservation of Sansavilla to preserve the ability of nearby Townsend Bombing Range to continue vital low-altitude flight training over the undeveloped land.

2 6 FlatTubWMAGeorgia DepartmentofNaturalResources003A gopher tortoise heading into its burrow in the Flat Tub Wildlife Management Area in Georgia. Photo courtesy Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia

The Okefenokee/Osceola Local Implementation Team, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Fund and others have worked together to conserve and begin to restore over 125,000 acres that will protect longleaf and expand a fire resilient buffer around the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. These acquisitions will help reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires to adjacent private timberland, businesses, homes, and properties.

2 6 Okefenokee Georgia StacyFunderburke010Kayaking in Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Stacy Funderburke.

These and other longleaf projects would not be possible without the work and support of many organizations and partnerships. Much has been accomplished, and the trend continues in the right direction toward increasing expanses of longleaf pines. But there is still much work to be done, and federal programs like the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, the Forest Legacy Program, the Land & Water Conservation Fund, and the Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program are critical to ensuring the legacy of longleaf pine forests.


Next week’s blog will feature a post about a recent longleaf pine conservation success at Osceola National Forest in Florida, so make sure to check back!