Friday, June 1, 2012

A Forest Reborn

Until about 150 years or so ago, most of the woodland in the South looked like the photo above.  From Virginia to east Texas, from the Gulf Coast up into the foothills of the Appalachians, about 90 million acres of land comprised the great longleaf pine forest.  We know this because early explorers like Bartram traveled the land--collecting, describing, naming, and delighting in the flora of the New World.

We also know why this vast forest was so expansive.  Longleaf pine is very tolerant of fire, even as a seedling when other trees (including other pines) are vulnerable.  Wildfires were prevalent in those olden days--some were started by lightning, and some were set deliberately by the native inhabitants, who clearly recognized certain advantages to woods with a nice, open view.  Sunlight through a broken tree canopy produced an abundance of edible plants--a veritable grocery store for hunter-gatherers.  A low understory devoid of brush also gave a man a little time to see and react to someone who might wish to sneak-up and club his brains out with a stone tool.

Unfortunately the U.S. had a pretty weak immigration policy in her early days, and the flood of illegal immigrants quickly discovered that longleaf pine had lots of other practical uses.  The king of the southern pines became the tree that built a new nation:  homes, cities, bridges, great ships--whatever required straight, quality, long-lasting lumber.

By the mid 1990's, 90 million acres was reduced to a scattered remnant of less than 2 million acres.

It is mind-boggling that a landscape could change so drastically over a few generations, but it did.  The cutover land was reforested with other native pines--primarily loblolly pine, which is much more prolific and considerably easier to grow.  The fires that had been a part of the southern landscape for centuries were virtually halted, prompted in large part by a government agency's propaganda, voiced through a lovable cartoon bear.

Carpetbaggers have worn many disguises over the last 150 years. Many of us who live down here recognize that they still do.

Thankfully, a few good people refused to let the longleaf forest go quietly into that good night.  Longleaf is beginning to make a comeback, now reoccupying about 4 million acres across the South.  Conservation groups like "The Longleaf Alliance" preach the gospel of longleaf, and even the most hardened skeptics are beginning to see the light.  As new disciples are added to the flock, thousands of acres are deliberately planted and nurtured on privately-owned land each year (and this fact is crucial, since land in Southern states like Alabama is over 90% privately owned).  Carefully controlled fires are once again being set and a whole generation is being re-educated to the benefits. 

As this landscape returns, so will a host of plant and animal species that depend on the longleaf forest as habitat, many of which were facing potential extinction.

It is a feel-good story, but one that doesn't have a happy ending just yet.

Come back later and we'll talk...


  1. Interesting. I did not know that. I will remain optimistic. In the 1950s, I believe it was, my maternal grandparents put much of their farm in Southwest Georgia into a federal program that planted pine loblolly pines.

  2.  That would have been the "Soil Bank" program, which "retired" thousands of acres of small farms in the South.  That program was the start of the expansive forest we have now, so it was a good thing.