Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge
Southeast Region
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The Longleaf Pine/Wiregrass Ecosystem

Longleaf/wiregrass habitat. Credit: USFWS

Longleaf/wiregrass habitat. Credit: USFWS



A disappearing ecosystem...

The longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem, the characteristic habitat of Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge, once covered approximately 90 million acres in the Southeastern United States. This unique ecosystem, shaped by thousands of years of natural fires that burned through every two to four years, has been reduced to fewer than two million acres, representing a 97 percent decline in this important ecosystem. Today, only scattered patches of the longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem occur, primarily in the coastal plains of the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. About half of these surviving stands of longleaf pine exist on public lands.

Factors contributing to the demise of this ecosystem include fire suppression efforts, clearing for agriculture and development, aggressive logging at the turn of the last century, and conversion to other pine types for faster growth and profits. Carolina Sandhills Refuge serves as a demonstration site for land management practices which preserve and enhance the diminishing longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem.

The longleaf is valuable in many ways. It is a hardy species, relatively wind firm and resistant to many insects that attack other pines, such as the pine tip moth and southern pine beetle, and diseases such as fusiform rust and root rot. The wood of the longleaf pine is dense and strong; its long, straight boles yield high-value wood products. Longleaf pine is not only more tolerant of fire than is loblolly pine or slash pine, it actually requires fire for its survival. This species can grow and survive well on poor, sandy soils, but it can also grow as well as other pines on sites with better soils.

However, the longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem is still in decline, and with it, the species and wildlife that depend upon it for survival. Today, more than 30 plant and animal species associated with longleaf pine ecosystems, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, are listed as threatened or endangered.

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The Sandhills region...

Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge sits astride one of the most remarkable sections of longleaf pine range: the Sandhills. This geological formation, wedged between the Coastal Plain and Piedmont and extending from North Carolina to Georgia, consists mostly of deep, porous sands. Geologists believe that these sandy soils were deposited by the advance and retreat of early seas, with clays added to them from piedmont erosion. Over time, these sandy clays were eroded by wind and streams to make the rolling, sandy landscape of the Sandhills region.

The uneven topography is responsible for a diverse group of plant communities that developed in the Sandhills. Among the many wildlife species native to these longleaf communities are game species such as white-tailed deer, bobwhite quail, wild turkey, and fox squirrel. Fox squirrels are especially well suited for the longleaf pine ecosystem. Their large size helps them in handling and harvesting the large cones of the longleaf pine, a feat not possible for their smaller relative, the grey squirrels.

From a botanical perspective, the longleaf forests are incredibly diverse; scientists refer to the Sandhills region as a center of southeastern biodiversity. Researchers studying one Sandhills longleaf pine community identified 124 plant species in a plot 100 feet square. This ranks the Sandhills among the most diverse botanical regions anywhere on the planet.

None of this remarkable diversity would exist without certain natural processes that drive the entire longleaf pine ecosystem. The most important of these is fire.

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An ecosystem created by fire...

Most people consider fire to be a destructive force when it occurs in a forest. That is not the case with the longleaf pine. In fact, this species requires frequent, low intensity fires for its very survival.

For thousands of years, natural fires ran almost unimpeded throughout the longleaf pine ecosystem. The pine needles, wire grass, and other plants fueled fires that burned, on average, at least every two to five years. The flames would move slowly across the landscape for days or even weeks at a time, eventually being extinguished by a drenching rain. Lightning storms ignited the first fires; then, beginning between 8,000 and10,000 years ago, Native Americans began to burn the woods to clear agricultural fields or to hunt game.

The frequent fires reduced the amount of litter on the ground, so they were mostly low-intensity, surface blazes that killed few trees. Fires in the spring or early summer would play a critical role by clearing the ground of grasses and needles so that seeds, dropping from their cones in the autumn, could quickly absorb the nutrients in the ash.

Longleaf/wiregrass habitat. Credit: USFWS

Longleaf/wiregrass habitat. Credit: USFWS

Gemination of the longleaf pine seedlings occurs within a week or two. After several years of developing a strong tap root system, the longleaf pines begin to grow in amazing spurts, 2 or 3 feet during each growing season. This fast growth quickly lifts their growing tips above the level of most ground fires, and they add a thick bark that protects the tree from fire. In time, the trees become immune to all but the hottest fires.

The old-growth longleaf pine was an impressive specimen, topping 120 feet on the better soils, its turn sometimes exceeding 3 feet in diameter. Mature trees could achieve extreme ages, 300 to 400 years. It thrived in a variety of conditions; you could find longleaf a few feet from the ocean; you could also find it on mountain ridges 2,500 feet high and more than 200 miles inland.

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The demise of the longleaf pine...

The original settlers, interested primarily in agriculture, largely bypassed the Sandhills region and its immense stands of longleaf pine. But slowly, people with other motives came looking for profits, and found the seemingly limitless treasure trove of the longleaf pine forests.

In the nineteenth century, naval stores -- tar, pitch, turpentine, and rosin -- were highly sought after. Naval stores refer to tree by-products used extensively in early ship building. For hundreds of years, boat builders used pine pitch to waterproof the seams between the planks of their wooden ships. Sailors coated the rigging of sails with tar to protect the ropes from the corrosive salt air. They also used the tar to patch leaks. Hundreds of ships from all over the world anchored in the ports of Wilmington and Charleston to load barrels of naval stores “mined” in the deep longleaf pine forests of the Sandhills.

Turpentine and rosin were produced from the gummy resin contained in the living trees. The longleaf pines were opened by hacking into the trunks low on the tree so the sap could be collected -- not unlike the process of collecting maple sugar sap in the production of syrups. The gum was collected every few weeks and taken to a distillery, where by heating it was separated into a clear liquid called turpentine and a darker solid called rosin. Unfortunately, the destructive methods of the tupentiners killed many trees and left others vulnerable to storms and fires.

By the 1880s and 1890s, longleaf pine was among the most sought after timber trees in the country. Its slow growth created wood of great strength. Longleaf lumber was shipped all over the world as giant squared timbers for use in building bridges, factories, and wharves. Thousands of heartwood crossties were made from longleaf pine and used by railroads throughout the country.

As they stripped the woods of their trees, loggers left mounds of flammable debris that frequently fueled catastrophic fires, destroying both the remaining trees and seedlings. The exposed earth left behind by clear cutting operations was highly susceptible to erosion, and nutrients were washed from the already porous soils. This further destroyed the natural seeding process. At the peak of the timber cutting in the 1890s and the first decade of the new century, the longleaf pine forests of the Sandhills were providing millions of board feet of timber each year. The timber cutters gradually moved across the South; by the 1920s, most of the “limitless” virgin longleaf pine forests were gone.

In an attempt to protect the remaining longleaf pine forests and encourage regeneration, turn-of-the-century foresters made a classic mistake: they condemned the frequent fires used by the Native Americans, cattlemen, and turperntiners, and turned instead to a policy of fire suppression. This policy caused natural fuels (needles, limbs, cones, and scrub-oak leaves and twigs) to accumulate rapidly in the remaining forests, creating even worse fire hazards.

Without fire, the diverse ground cover was slowly smothered beneath the dense carpet of pine needles and oak leaves. Longleaf pine seeds could no longer germinate because they could not reach the mineral soil. Scrub oak, normally shrub-sized in the natural longleaf forests swept by frequent fires, grew into dense, tall thickets, further preventing light to the forest floor and competing with the longleaf seedlings for soil nutrients and moisture.

The wildlife accustomed to the open longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem -- wild turkeys, fox squirrels, bob-white quail, and red-cockaded woodpeckers -- virtually disappeared, replaced by the inhabitants of denser pine forests. The intricate interplay of life adapted to longleaf pine ecosystem was slowly dying.

Today, longleaf pine is an ecosystem in trouble everywhere in the South. Of the estimated 90 million acres in the pre-settlement forests, only about 2 million acres of mostly second-growth longleaf pine remain in scattered patches. Less than half of that is found on public lands. Those stands of longleaf in private ownership continue to decline, as landowners replace the longleaf with faster growing species such as loblolly pine. And, despite our increasing knowledge about the beneficial role of fire, especially fire during the growing season, many landowners still do not burn their longleaf pine forests, or do not burn them often enough.

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Recovery efforts for the longleaf pine...

Private landowners are increasingly interested in restoring this ecosystem for themselves and for future generations. Currently, planning, technical, and financial assistance are available from various Federal and state agencies and conservation groups. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Southeast Region, is working through its Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program to locate private landowners who are interested in restoring this endangered ecosystem, and to develop and carry out habitat restoration plans for their properties.

Over the past three years, the Service has initiated habitat restoration projects on more than 1,300 acres at 20 sites in Georgia, North and South Carolina, Alabama, and Florida. Several thousand additional acres of potential restoration projects, involving more than 20 private landowner partners, have been identified by the Service.

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Become a Partners for Fish and Wildlife Cooperator...

The staff at Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge is interested in helping local landowners to restore the native longleaf ecosystem to the Sandhills area by providing long term benefits for wildlife with long timber rotations. We can provide technical and financial assistance for restoration practices such as site preparation, planting of seedlings, herbicide treatment, prescribed burning, and wiregrass planting.

A Refuge representative will meet with landowners and help develop a restoration plan. Funding assistance for projects is granted on a competitive basis. Priority is given to projects that maximize wildlife benefits and that are located near the Refuge. Cost share rates vary with the availability of funding. Currently, the Service cost share ranges from 50% to 75%. Owners retain all rights to their land. For landowners who may be concerned about possible effects of future endangered species on their property, a “Safe Harbor” assurance can be granted to the landowner.

For more information, contact:

  • Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge
    23734 Hwy 1
    McBee, SC 29101
    phone: 843/335-8401

You can also download this Partners For Fish and Wildlife Cooperators Application for Assistance (in .pdf format), which can be printed and submitted to the Partners for Fish and Wildlife division of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The application includes additional contact information.

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Last updated: July 28, 2010