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Information iconLongleaf pines, says Salem Saloom, are "part of our heritage." Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Growing trees, saving species

If one of the Southeast’s signature species is the gopher tortoise, so, too, is the towering pine that shades its burrow.

The longleaf pine is one of the Southeastern United States’ great trees. When European settlers came to North America, they discovered Pinus palustris. It stretched across 90 million acres, from east Texas to Virginia, and was just what a young nation needed to grow.

The wood from the conifer built homes, sailing masts and even roads. It provided turpentine and tar. Today, it’s not unusual to peer into the roof of an old house and admire its tough old longleaf rafters.

Long slender green pine needles emerge from the ground.
A longleaf pine seedling. Alabama grower Salem Saloom turned to planting longleafs after discovering how well they withstood a hurricane that decimated his stands of loblolly pines. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

But progress has a price; as the country grew, the longleaf forests shrank. A decade ago, scientists estimated that the original sweep of longleaf forests had dwindled to about 3 million acres.

Today, 10 years later, that acreage has grown by about 50 percent. Scientists now estimate that 4.5 to 4.7 million acres are planted with longleaf.

The increasing numbers have profound implications for our environment. Longleaf pines are champions at carbon sequestration, the process in which carbon dioxide is stored. More trees, in other words, means less carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Their root systems also help retain water in the soil.

The growth of longleafs is not an accident. Robert Abernethy, president of the nonprofit Longleaf Alliance, credits a loose-knit group of conservationists for the tree’s revitalization.

Some grow thousands of acres; others have only a few acres where the big trees spread needles against the sky. But they all, he said, share at least one trait.

“They want the feeling they get knowing they are part of something bigger than themselves,” said Abernethy, also a tree farmer. “That’s their country club. They want to go out and work the land on the weekends.”

Of course, they are businessmen (and women). Some sell the trees for timber; others recognize the value that homeowners and landscape crews place in longleaf pine needles.

The growers seem to share at least a second trait: They all love their trees.

Two are profiled here.

Reese Thompson: ‘The real treasure’

McRae, Georgia – When he surveys the trees that rise in irregular columns against the Georgia sky, Reese Thompson gets a glimpse of the great beyond.

“Trees are as close to immortality as I can get,” said Thompson, a South Georgia farmer whose longleaf holdings stretch into thousands of acres. “A lot of these trees will outlive me.”

A man gesturing in an open forest.
Georgia tree farmer Reese Thompson is in the forefront of a growing longleaf pine industry. “A lot of these trees,” he says, “will outlive me.” Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Trees are, to a great extent, his life. Thompson is a fifth-generation farmer with tracts maybe an hour’s drive north from Jacksonville, Fla. His brother, Frank, also is a grower.

Thompson is such an accomplished grower that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (the Service) Region 4 earlier this year recognized his conservation efforts with a Regional Director’s Award.

Thompson, for his part, is part businessman, part steward, and all-time longleaf enthusiast. He understands that the trees he grows are vital in a complex ecosystem.

The gopher tortoise, which the Service considers an at-risk species, thrives in the light underbrush that grow in the shadows of the conifer. The red cockaded woodpecker, listed as threatened on the federal Endangered Species Act, lives in its branches. The indigo snake, also under pressure, is another creature found where longleafs grow.

On a recent summer morning, Thompson pointed to some tracks along a sandy bank adjacent to a line of longleaf pines – proof that Gopherus polyphemus, the gopher tortoise, had been rambling about.

Thompson likes those tortoises. They are a hard-shelled reminder of how a man can change for the better.

“When I was 50, I was beginning to wonder what my purpose in life was.” said Thompson, 63. “I had no real abilities.”

Sure, he was a tree farmer – had been doing that since the early 1980s. But he wondered if there was something more. Was there a purpose to all this land, all these trees?

A man in a stand of young longleaf pine trees.
Reese Thompson stands in a stand of young longleaf pines. The Georgia tree farmer is one of a growing number of conservationists who embrace the slow-growing, hardy tree. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

A botanist with the National Tree Federation gave him the answer. Visiting one of his tracts, she marked off an area of woodland about 1 meter square. She knelt and invited Thompson to join her. He did.

In that small tract, she said, was a vast array of plants that helped forge a link between the creatures that crawl and fly and the trees that provide them cover. And looking after it all, she said, were stewards – people like himself, tree farmers.

Thompson suddenly understood. He embraced a new term: conservationist. Like an old shirt, the word has become more comfortable over the years. He only wishes it didn’t chafe others.

“This,” he said, sweeping his arm at the trees, “is the real treasure.”

Thompson recently bought more than 100 acres from an estate. A number of heirs held claim to the property; he’d been trying to buy the site for 20 years. He closed on the sale in early June.

A man in a stand of young longleaf pine trees.
Sure, Reese Thompson says, he could sell his stands of longleaf pines and buy a place at the coast. He won’t do it. “This,” he says during a recent stroll in the pines’s shadows, “is the real treasure.” Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

In time, Thompson said, he will transform the site into a suitable longleaf forest. At the very least, he’ll get started; it takes years to create a thriving longleaf habitat. A tree farmer has to be patient.

Sure, he has enough to sell and live comfortably. He’s thought about that. “Maybe the smartest thing would be to clear-cut all this and go live at the beach.”

But at the beach he cannot stroll in solitude, nor listen to a quail sounding a quarter-mile away. “I guess I’ll retire,” he said, “when they nail my coffin shut.”

Salem Saloom: ‘American heritage’

Evergreen, Alabama – The truck was old, a battered Chevy, and it had been places a truck shouldn’t go – through streambeds and down rocky ravines, up hills where tall trees stood in the way.

The truck belonged to Salem Saloom, and he aimed it toward an opening in the shadows of a south-central Alabama forest. The pickup bounced over a small boulder and back into the sun. Saloom paid no attention to that. He held the steering wheel with one hand. The other he used to point.

“There.”

It was just a splash of green, brighter than its surroundings – a seedling, planted earlier in the year. Its needles were brilliant and long, a reminder that the pines that once dominated parts of Alabama are coming back.

They’re doing it with the help of people like Saloom, 69, a retired surgeon and nationally recognized tree farmer. In 2010, the American Forest Foundation recognized him as its National Tree Farmer of the Year.

Perhaps it’s because of what he sees in the rumpled red dirt in Evergreen, an hour’s drive south of Montgomery. “You’ve got to have a vision,” said Saloom.

He takes a long view: longleaf pines, growing on this tract, three centuries from now.

He stopped, got out of the truck. He strode into a meadow dotted with other brilliant green splashes of young pines. His big grin flashed under the brim of an old cap. “Isn’t that pretty?”

He grew up in the forests in and around Enterprise, Alabama, not far from Dothan. That’s where his Lebanese grandparents moved early in the previous century. “I knew about longleaf pines,” he said, “but I never appreciated them.”

A close-up photograph of a gentleman with glasses and a mustache.
A retired surgeon, Salem Saloom has been steadily adding to his inventory of longleaf pines in Alabama. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

That changed in 1983 when Saloom and his wife, Dianne, bought a cabin here and began buying land. By 2004, he’d amassed stands of longleaf and loblolly pines. That was the year Hurricane Ivan arrived in that part of Alabama. It came ashore as a category 3 storm, with winds exceeding 100 mph. Ivan hit his forests like a hammer.

The loblollies snapped like pencils. Saloom figured he had $250,000 in wood lying in tangles on the forest floor. “We could have laid down and cried,” he said.

The longleafs? With their deeper roots, they withstood the tempest far better. As they oversaw the removal of the downed loblollies, the Salooms decided to replace the trees with something hardier.

“We started thinking: ‘Wildlife and timber are two major objectives here’,” Saloom said. Gopher tortoises, he knew, thrived in longleaf forests; so did an array of other species. And longleaf pines grow straight and strong – a perfect source of poles and other wood needs.

In 2006, they started planting longleafs. At the end of 2016, the couple celebrated the planting of their 1,000th acre in longleaf pines. They have done it with seedlings and fire, creating a habitat for the trees and the creatures that live in their shadows and branches.

And he’s just getting started. Saloom is eyeing an old, 95- to 100-acre logging tract to expand his longleaf inventory. He’ll have to cut back some smaller hardwoods, as well as some loblollies. He thinks the effort will be time well-spent.

“In the long run,” he said, “it’s a better product.”

And this: “It’s part of our American heritage. We want to restore part of that ecosystem.”

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