Open Spaces: Georgia: Restoring a ‘Wonder Tree’ in a Changing Climate

Georgia: Restoring a ‘Wonder Tree’ in a Changing Climate

Longleaf pine on fire

Longleaf pine forests need fire. Fires remove competing woody vegetation and release nutrients, allowing the rich diversity of plant and animal species found in longleaf ecosystems to thrive.  As temperatures rise in a changing climate, wildfires are expected to increase, making the longleaf pine a good bet for the future. Photo: John Maxwell for USFWS. Download.

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Federal biologist Laurie Fenwood has a special name for her favorite tree, the longleaf pine. She calls it the wonder tree.

“Because it’s good for everything,” said Fenwood, who is leading America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Whatever the question, in the Southeast the answer is longleaf pine.”

Which southern pine tree species is most resistant to beetle infestation? Longleaf.

Which southern pine thrives during wet or dry periods? Longleaf.

Withstands hurricane-force winds? Tolerates fire? Is best for wildlife? Longleaf, longleaf and longleaf.

All of which has led Fenwood and others to a final question and answer: Which southern pine is likely the best suited to a changing climate? Longleaf, of course.

Before the European migration to North America, the longleaf pine forest stretched across more than 90 million acres from southern Virginia to Florida, and as far west as Texas. The tree dominated more than half of Georgia, filling the coastal plain from what is now Fort Benning in West Georgia to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in the southeast part of the state.

Longleaf reigned because it can grow in a broad range of habitats, from dry mountain slopes to sandy, swampy soils. It evolved with the southern pine beetle and frequent fire. Its large taproot provides a firm anchor, helping the tree withstand strong winds. In many aspects, longleaf wins over loblolly and slash pines, although many tree farmers prefer those yellow pines for their faster early growth and easier regeneration.

Today only pockets of the vast longleaf pine forest are left, totaling less than 4 percent of its historic range due to land clearing for development and agriculture, fire suppression, and the conversion of tree farms to short-rotation pines.

A map of the historic range of longleaf pine

Green represents the historic range of the longleaf pine forest. It once covered more than 90 million acres from southern Virginia to Florida, and west to Texas. Because the longleaf pine evolved across this varied landscape, experts say it is best suited of all the southern pines to handle warmer temperatures, longer droughts, more intense storms and other likely climate-related stressors. Less than 4 percent remains.

In 2009, the Service and other federal agencies joined states, universities and non-profit partners to launch America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative. The goal is to expand the longleaf pine forest from about 3.5 million acres today, to 8 million acres by 2024.

Millions of dollars in federal grants have been distributed to plant longleaf, remove invasive species, thin trees and prescribe fire. For example, the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program last year spent about $1.2 million across the Southeast to provide longleaf pine technical assistance and habitat improvement on private lands.

Emily Jo Williams, executive director of The Longleaf Alliance, a nonprofit organization established in 1995 to restore longleaf across its range, said “Especially in Georgia, longleaf is a good bet for a future that does include a changing climate. . . When you look at predictions of how things will change, longleaf is a good preparation for those climate changes.”

In its 2009 report, Standing Tall: How Restoring Longleaf Pine Can Help Prepare the Southeast for Global Warming, the National Wildlife Federation contends longleaf also should be the centerpiece of carbon sequestration efforts in the Southeast. The report cites the long life of individual longleaf pines (up to 450 years) and their low-risk for rapidly releasing carbon due to disease or wildfires.

For the Service, and many partners in longleaf restoration, a prime motivator is species recovery.

A baby gopher tortoise looking adorable in the grass

This baby gopher tortoise is walking through grasses found in the longleaf ecosystem. Photo: Randy Browning/USFWS. Download.

As the longleaf pine forest dwindled in the 1700s and 1800s, so did species dependent on the longleaf ecosystem. Those include 29 federally protected species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, Eastern indigo snake, gopher tortoise and Cooley’s Meadowrue (a plant). Of the 290 species of amphibians and reptiles that occur in the Southeast, 170 are found in the remnants of the longleaf pine forest.

Additionally, nearly 900 plant species occur only in the longleaf forests. It’s counter-intuitive, but the monoculture of a forest dominated by longleaf pines leads to rich biodiversity of animals and plants that depend on its ecosystem.

The secret is fire.

Williams said the diverse wildlife depends on the diverse understory of grasses and herbaceous flowering plants that require frequent fire to maintain. Longleaf happens to be the one tree species that thrives under frequent, low-intensity fires, as does the understory plants that provide food and shelter for wildlife species, many of which are found nowhere else but the longleaf forest.

A gray frog stares head-on at the camera

At night, wet areas in the southern longleaf forest fill with the calls of amphibians seeking a mate. This gray tree frog and many other amphibians depend on the longleaf ecosystem for survival. Photo: John Maxwell for USFWS. Download.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) has worked on longleaf restoration for nearly 15 years. Recently, the state received a two-year National Fish and Wildlife Foundation/Natural Resources Conservation Service grant to hire two biologists whose sole focus will be to assist private landowners in growing longleaf pines.

Reggie Thackston, Georgia WRD’s Game Management Section Private Lands Program Manager, said “many of Georgia’s wildlife species are tied to the Longleaf Pine Savanna habitat type. WRD’s effort is to try and restore that ecosystem to fullest extent feasible.”

Georgia’s conservation priorities include more than 20 animal and 56 plant species associated with the longleaf ecosystem, such as the bobwhite quail, a ground-dwelling bird that is Georgia’s official State Gamebird due to its popularity among small-game hunters.

Thackston estimates the state has about 500,000 acres of longleaf, about 14 percent of what’s left.  He said a good public land example of the longleaf wiregrass system includes portions of the Silver Lake Wildlife Management Area in southwest Georgia, near Bainbridge.

Longleaf pine standing tall

The distance between individual longleaf pines in the forest allows the sun to nourish a biologically rich understory. Research indicates longleaf pine trees are the southern pine best suited for a changing climate with more intense storms, longer droughts, and increased risk of beetle infestation. Photo: Randy Browning/USFWS.

Partners working on longleaf pine restoration in Georgia:

  • Georgia Department of Natural Resources
  • Georgia Forestry Commission
  • The Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichauway
  • Longleaf Alliance
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • Tall Timbers Research Station
  • U.S. Army – Fort Benning and Fort Stewart
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • U.S. Forest Service

Climate Change Focus: Adaptation, Engagement and Mitigation

Author: Stacy Shelton, USFWS, 404-679-7290, stacy_shelton@fws.gov

Contact: Laurie Fenwood, USFWS, 404-679-4016, laurie_fenwood@fws.gov

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Comments (Comment Moderation is enabled. Your comment will not appear until approved.)
Rose Rodriguez's Gravatar Great article on longleaf. If possible, add the web site for Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Consverancy, www.talltimbers.org, to your blog. There is a link to the Wade Tract Preserve, the old-growth longleaf forest that Tall Timbers manages. The Wade Tract is one of only a very few old-growth stands that has been managed with fire for decades. It is also the only stand specifically dedicated to research purposes. The history of research conducted on the Wade Tract, coupled with the extreme rarity of this old-growth forest type, make it one of the most important ecological research sites anywhere.
# Posted By Rose Rodriguez | 6/9/11 4:30 PM
Sandy Long's Gravatar What a beautiful photo to lead off an interesting story.
# Posted By Sandy Long | 6/9/11 4:53 PM

Last updated: June 21, 2012