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.
Photos: Accompanying photoset on Flickr
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.