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Bright green needles emerge from a central cone of a longleaf pine tree
Information icon Longleaf pine needles. Photo by Dot Paul, USDA NRCS.

Seeing the forest for the trees

The Service works through the Longleaf Pine Partnership

The longleaf pine was once so abundant that it seemed like an inexhaustible resource – an ocean of green – to early American settlers. In the Southeast, longleaf pine forests once covered more than 90 million acres. By the mid-1990s, however, only three percent or so of that acreage remained, much of it in parts of the Gulf Coast states such as the Florida Panhandle and sections of southern Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Not only has the bulk of the historic acreage been lost, but also much of the longleaf pine habitat that remains is fragmented, degraded, and of limited ecological, cultural and socio-economic value.

As a result, it should come as no surprise that more than 30 animal species that depend on longleaf pine forests are federally listed as endangered or threatened, and many more are considered to be at-risk. These include the red-cockaded woodpecker, the only woodpecker to make its home by boring holes exclusively in living trees; the eastern indigo snake, the longest snake in North America; and the gopher tortoise, whose burrows also provide refuge for about 360 other species. Longleaf pine forests also contain nearly 900 plants found nowhere else in the world. In addition to their important role in supporting wildlife, these forests provide high-quality timber and reduce excess nutrients and sediments in surface water that ultimately flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

A regional working group comprised of more than 20 diverse organizations formed in October 2007, under the leadership of the Service, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Defense to tackle the challenge of reversing the decline in longleaf pine forests. Together, the group developed a focused, range-wide restoration approach that was detailed in a document entitled Range-wide Conservation Plan for Longleaf Pine. The conservation plan’s objective is the increase of longleaf acres range-wide from 3.4 to 8 million acres in the Southeast by 2024.

In 2011, the Longleaf Partnership Council, a diverse 33-member group of stakeholders that includes the Service and representatives from federal and state agencies, non-profit organizations, academia, timber industry and landowners, was established to support the plan. The Longleaf Partnership Council coordinates the on-the-ground efforts of teams whose work covers areas that have a core of at least 100,000 acres of relatively intact longleaf forests (deemed Significant Geographic Areas). Partners have agreed to place greater emphasis on restoration efforts in these areas, which are typically located near national wildlife refuges, national forests, military installations, state forests and heritage reserves. Three are on the Gulf Coast, and many are found within the Gulf watershed.

In addition to reaching a consensus on these key areas for restoration, the Longleaf Partnership Council has overseen the standardization of definitions as well as the development of metrics for assessing forest conditions; the establishment of a common repository for new longleaf pine information; and the compilation of information related to longleaf pine restoration research and implementation that has been developed by institutions over the last 20 years. Projects spearheaded or co-led by the Service include the development of assessment tools to determine target conditions for longleaf forests, planting density guidance, annual Accomplishment Reports and short term planning documents called Strategic Priorities and Actions.

The restoration work based on these and similar efforts by the Service and its partners are making a difference. Recent monitoring reveals approximately 4.7 million acres of longleaf pine can now be found in Southeast, up from the low of 3.4 million that existed before the restoration plan was put into action.

Originally published in E-Grits, March-April 2016 issue

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