Before European settlement, more than 90 million acres of longleaf pine forest blanketed the southeastern United States from southern Virginia to eastern Texas. Today, after centuries of logging, fire suppression and clearing for development and farming, just 3 million acres remain.

These forests remain mostly on patches of public land such as Mountain Longleaf and Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuges in Alabama, where manager Sarah Clardy is essentially a one–woman longleaf pine restoration operation.

Sure, Clardy has help from federal, state, academic and non–governmental conservation partners. Sure, she praises her predecessors’ great work. But when it comes to accomplishing the primary mission of the two refuges—to conserve and restore longleaf pine forest—Clardy is it. Because one position was lost through retirement attrition and a second is vacant, Clardy is the only full–time U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff member at these two refuges and Watercress Darter Refuge.

“There can be 140 indigenous plant species within one square kilometer of longleaf pine ecosystem,” says Clardy. “That makes it as diverse as a tropical rainforest. It’s also one of the most endangered ecosystems. It’s important that plant species diversity is restored at Mountain Longleaf and Cahaba River Refuges; the more diverse the flora, the more diverse the fauna.”

About 35 percent of habitat at the 9,016–acre Mountain Longleaf Refuge in eastern Alabama is longleaf pine. A major challenge for restoration is that refuge land—which was Fort McClellan Army Base from 1917–1999—must be cleared of unexploded ordnance before thinning or small–block prescribed burns can be conducted. Still, since being established in 2003, the refuge has done large–block burns on 7,200 acres and chemically treated 71 acres.

“At Mountain Longleaf, the forest has been able to maintain itself with continuous regeneration,” says Clardy. The goal is to encourage that regeneration—mostly via prescribed fire, which “removes young hardwood species, thereby allowing the [fire–resistant] longleaf pine more nutrients, space and light, so it can grow and become established.”

About one–third of 3,700–acre Cahaba River Refuge’s central Alabama habitat is longleaf pine, another third is upland or bottomland hardwood, and the final third is planted loblolly pine. The refuge, which was established in 2002, is working to restore abandoned coal mine land and replant 100 acres with longleaf pine in winter 2014–15. In winter 2004–05, 200 acres of loblolly pine were cleared and replanted in native longleaf pine.

“Everything we do is small in scale but moving toward the bigger picture” of landscape level longleaf pine restoration across the Southeast, Clardy says.

Partners such as Talladega National Forest, The Nature Conservancy, refuge Friends and universities—especially Auburn University and Jacksonville State University—have been vital to refuge research, restoration and outreach efforts.

“The better people understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, the more they will support us,” Clardy says. “When visitors feel that connection with the outdoors, with the forest, when they hear a bobwhite quail or pileated woodpecker, when they see a wild turkey … then they get it.”

All longleaf trees at the two refuges are of the subspecies montane longleaf pine.

“They aren’t as tall or as big as coastal longleaf pine, but they are just as majestic,” says Clardy. “They’ve always stood out to me as the grandfather trees of the woods—like they are doling out wisdom to the younger trees.”