Longleaf Pine on a Changing Landscape

Once the dominant species in the Southwest, the longleaf ecosystem first began to dwindle in numbers during the 1700 and 1800s. The decline in large part can be attributed to development by the incoming settlers. Millions of acres were cleared for use in building railroads, housing and for agricultural purposes. It was not until the 1900s when people began to realize that cutovers were not reseeding in longleaf, but instead in faster growing species such as loblolly, slash and hardwoods.

In the early 19th and 20th centuries, extensive logging left massive amounts of debris or "fuels" on the forest floor, leading to catastrophic wildfires. The backlash of these events was the demonization of fire and its encouraged exclusion from the landscape. Throughout the 20th century, landowners began to see the value of longleaf and fire on the landscape. This realization was largely driven by dropping numbers of game species. The management of land for recreational activities, such as hunting, have protected the last reserves of high quality longleaf habitat.

In the modern day, the longleaf ecosystem has become an object of intense concentration by federal, state, non-profit and private entities. Strong efforts are being made not only to reforest with longleaf and manage existing stands, but to shift the cultural view on this important species. As can be seen in the graph below, well over half of the longleaf on the current landscape belongs in private holdings. This emphasizes the importance of landowner outreach and involvement, and agencies have worked diligently to fill this role.


According to Forest Inventory and Analysis data, the current condition of the existing longleaf is unthinned young stands. The graph below shows the age classes of existing longleaf stands. There is a high concentration in younger stands (less than 20 years of age). While younger stands can offer wildlife value if managed properly, they are not typically as diverse or ecologically important as stands that are more mature. Stands that are older will provide trees suitable for nesting and are more viable for summer burning, which encourages native understory diversity, an important factor in determining quality. Almost always, younger stands of longleaf (20 years of less) have not been thinned, greatly reducing the amount of light hitting the forest floor and decreasing structural quality. It is an important duty of conservation efforts to encourage these landowners with younger longleaf to retain trees long past the first or second thin, and to enact a proactive prescribed burning regime on site.


The Invaluable and Intrinsic Importance

Well who gives a hoot?

A great deal of information about the values longleaf and its ecosystem bring to wildlife, and how to increase that value, can be found in the management section, under "Managing for Wildlife." But the reason why focus has been directed towards conservation and reestablishment of this specific southern pine must also be noted. Many threatened and endangered species such as the Gopher Tortoise, Indigo snake, Hairy Rattleweed, Gopher Frog, Red Cockaded Woodpecker and many others, call this area home and depend on thinned and frequently burned open pine savannah for their existence. Some species that are being considered for listing are a good motivator for responsible management on both public and private lands. A proactive approach incorporating management activities that increase habitat value limits the chance that species will ever need to be listed.

Never stop learning!

Below are links that provide more information on the history of longleaf and its decline in the South.