Long Live the Longleaf Pine The past, present and future of 'the tree that built the south'

By Lianne D'Arcy, Education & Communications Intern / UF Thompson Earth Systems Institute

A familiar Florida backdrop, the longleaf pine has been a fixture in the state since the most recent Ice Age. Though they originated in Virginia, in the following 4,000 years, longleaf pines have slowly crept their way from their way through the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Florida, solidifying their sweep into the Southeast. Endless expanses of these towering trees once watched over a mosaic of native shrubs and grasses, making up one of the most biologically diverse habitats in North America.

Many frequent these forests. Close your eyes, and you can hear the staccato rhythm of the red-cockaded woodpecker carving out its home, or catch the subtle slither of the eastern indigo snake gliding past. While feeling the crunch of dry needles littered beneath your shoes, you can take in the scent of budding wildflowers and fresh air, and slowly lose yourself under the protection of the pine.

Though the trees used to dominate over 90 million acres of the Southeastern United States — marching past mountains, flatwoods, and rolling hills — today they encompass less than 3% of their historic range. Remaining longleaf pine ecosystems now exist solely in clustered pockets, scattered across their ancient empire, a shadow of their former selves. They reigned because of their ability to thrive in a wide range of habitats — found anywhere from the slopes of the Great Smoky Mountains to the swamps of Florida’s wetlands. Resistant to beetle infestation and impartial to wet or dry periods and able to withstand the wrath of hurricanes, Simply put: longleaf pines were able to thrive almost anywhere in the Southeast.

But centuries of farming, commercial logging, overgrazing by livestock, and fire-exclusion have decimated the longleaf pine population. Because of this, they’re now one of the most endangered ecosystems in the United States.

History of the longleaf pine

The native range of the longleaf pine extends from Texas to Virginia, reaching down into Florida and stretching up into northern Georgia and Alabama. The pines can be found at elevations ranging from 2,000 feet to sea level and have historically grown to over 115 feet tall. The towering trees can live up to 250 years — with some as old as 450 years having been found.

And according to the USDA, all longleaf pine have the biological potential to live up to 500 years, but rarely reach that age due to environmental disturbances, which can range from strong tornadoes to insect infestations.

Furthermore, Indigenous peoples would issue fires to the longleaf pine ecosystems to improve forage quality, reduce the risk of wildfire, and to protect themselves from predators and other tribes.

According to a study from the USDA, the frequency of fires in the Southern Appalachians increased considerably after the arrival of Native Americans 10,000 years ago.

Prescribed fire also is still used to manage longleaf pine landscapes today.

Rick Dolan, forestry operations administrator at Florida Forest Service, said that 53,000 acres of the Goethe State Forest — which is dominated by longleaf pine flatwoods — was burned in 2011 alone.

Over the years, however, longleaf pine populations have been slashed by farming, logging and fire exclusion. As the “tree that built the South,” the pines’ sturdy, hardwood trunks were used to build homes and ships. Their pitch and resin was highly sought after, and their landscapes were cleared for the farming of cotton, tobacco, and other crops.

The National Park Service states that during the 1700s, the gummy resin of these trees — called crude turpentine — was distilled and used as lamp oil and in the manufacturing of medicines, paints, and rubber goods. Furthermore, the smelting of longleaf pine logs was used to make tar and pitch, useful for rope-rigging, axle-greasing and the manufacturing of ‘tar paper,’ a sturdy material used in construction.

Even today, the pines are grown in farms and harvested for telephone poles and sawtimber, some of the most highly-valued timber products according to the North Carolina Forest Service.

And as Indigenous peoples in the Southeast were driven from their homes and into lands west of the Mississippi River over the course of the 19th century, much of their Traditional Ecological Knowledge was ignored and lost by 1700s settlers. These fire-dependent ecosystems were no longer being maintained, and years of both habitat destruction and negligence due to fire-suppression virtually eliminated the ecosystem.

AT DUSK - Tops of pines at Lake Pithlachocco Hiking Trail in Newnan’s Lake State Forest, Friday, November 20, 2020 (Photo by Lianne D’Arcy).

Current state of the longleaf pine

According to the National Wildlife Federation, today the pines are still disappearing at a rate of 100,000 acres a year, further fragmenting the ecosystem. A report from the Florida Forest Service and USDA notes that 62% of today’s longleaf pine-dominated forests exist in the hands of private landowners. This makes consistent and ensured land management of these long-lived pines difficult, and further creates isolated pockets of longleaf pine forests across the state.

However, large-scale efforts to restore this ecosystem in Florida are currently in effect. The Longleaf Alliance, America's Longleaf Restoration Initiative, the Florida Forest Service and many local nonprofits are all working to restore and maintain the ecosystem. They’re doing so through prescribed fire, mass plantings and overstory harvesting, where the upper canopies of trees are removed to encourage growth in understories.

Importance of the longleaf pine

Longleaf pines have stood and watched Florida’s development over hundreds of years. In that time, they’ve become a North Star in our night sky, serving as an important cultural, economic and environmental feature of the state.

Culturally, longleaf pines have played an important role for Indigenous peoples and the settlers who followed. The frequent use of fire by Native Americans became an integral part of the tribes’ cultures, with the sentiment still felt today. The Seminole Tribe and the Miccosukee Tribe both use prescribed fires on their tribal lands and in the Everglades as a way to manage their landscapes and connect with past practices. Today, the Seminole Tribe is known to treat over 10,000 acres annually with prescribed fire. Moreover, settlers were known to wander through these forests of southern giants simply to hear the music of the ‘whispering pines.’

The logging, farming, and harvesting of the pines was also integral to the economic stability of the region during the 1700s. Sailing ships and railroad tracks were carved from the old growth, the solvent turpentine was harvested from the superior resin, and the trees were thought to have more uses than any others in North America. Longleaf pines are still highly desirable for today’s woodland owners. According to the Longleaf Alliance, when looking to make a profit, landowners turn to longleaf pines, where they sell the trees’ needles for pine straw, trunks for sawtimber, branches for pulpwood and lease the landscape for hunters to use.

A window into the past, longleaf pine ecosystems are also living museums. Their biodiversity offers us a glimpse into unique environments, home to 29 threatened and endangered species such as the Bachman’s sparrow or gopher tortoise, and host to nearly 900 plant species that cannot be found anywhere else. Because these pines can thrive in a variety of elevations, soils, and habitat types, they have become a biodiversity hotspot for birders, hunters and nature-lovers.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is endangered and relies on these old growth pines, said Ivor Kincaide, land stewardship director of Alachua Conservation Trust. "They too need fire to exist," he finished.

Fire and the longleaf pine

Part of what makes the longleaf pine ecosystem so special is its fire-dependence. Without frequent fire, the ecosystem can become overgrown. This poses a wildfire risk, threatens the livelihood of many of the ecosystem’s species, and inhibits the new growth of native vegetation. Traditionally, these ecosystems saw fire from Florida’s frequent lightning strikes or from Indigenous populations, but today the FFS, the USDA, local nonprofits, and private landowners work together to maintain longleaf pines through controlled burns.

Interestingly, longleaf pine seedlings have a unique grass-stage growth form that is resistant to fire. If the seedling’s aerial half is decimated by a burn, new growth can still sprout again from the surviving underground root.

According to the USDA, prescribed fire is essential for removing smothering growth that prevents the ecosystem’s signature diversity. Additionally, the fires burn up trees that have brown-spot needle blight disease, which can stunt seedling growth.

“Fire is… part of the very ecosystem itself,” said Dolan. “It’s a necessary tool.”

Florida is also home to many fire-dependent species. The red-cockaded woodpecker, indigo snake, and Florida scrub jay are all at-risk species that depend on longleaf pines and frequent fires to survive.

An especially notable species within the longleaf pine ecosystem is the gopher tortoise. Their burrows, tunneling 10 feet under the ground, provide critical shelter for over 300 animal species during fire events.

Future of the longleaf pine

A fruitful future grows on the branches of the longleaf pine. To help achieve this, many organizations today are ensuring the protection of the remaining pockets of longleaf pine ecosystems through the planting of seedlings, the restoration of disturbed ecosystems and the protection of established longleaf ecosystems.

Wide-scale longleaf pine restoration efforts weren’t always in place. In the early 90s, the American Forest’s planting of nearly four million seedlings across over 8,500 acres sparked the systematic recovery of the ecosystem. And in 1995, the Survey of Longleaf Pine Restoration Efforts in the South was conducted, identifying 59 organizations willing to spearhead longleaf management.

Over the next 20 years, many other longleaf pine restoration efforts from both public and private sectors would crop up, including America's Longleaf Restoration Initiative or The Longleaf Alliance. And although the longleaf pine will likely never stretch as far as it once did, current restoration efforts hope to encourage proper land management within existing ecosystems and plant new seedlings where they can.

According to American Forests, 500,000 acres of longleaf pine were restored as of 2016, and over 7.4 million longleaf seedlings were planted over the past 25 years. The USDA expects to increase the expanse of longleaf pines from 3.4 to 8 million acres by 2025.

However, these organizations acknowledge that longleaf pines face a long road to recovery. Over half of existing longleaf pine populations lie on private property, making cohesive management difficult. This issue is made even more complex due to the fact that these trees can inhabit a variety of landscapes, each with slightly different land management needs. Furthermore, the longleaf pine ecosystem is now threatened by invasive species, such as the Japanese climbing fern, which was introduced to Florida in the 1930s.

Ultimately, restoration efforts all involve looking beyond the trees themselves and focusing on all aspects of their ecosystem. Because longleaf pines can inhabit a wide variety of landscapes, restoration efforts will need to consider different prescribed fire techniques, native understory plant restoration efforts, invasive species suppression methods and many other land management approaches, all of which will vary depending on slightly different pockets of pine.

“Individually, people can volunteer, donate and get involved in local conservation efforts as much as possible,” Kincaide concluded. “And ultimately, there’s no better way to appreciate your public lands than by learning about them. Longleafs are just one of the many ecosystems needing help.”

The longleaf pines of today serve as an important bridge between Florida’s colorful past and unknown future. As they continue to stand over the state, one thought is clear: Long live the longleaf pine.

This story is part of the UF Thompson Earth Systems Institute's student-produced Earth to Florida newsletter that curates the state’s environmental news and explains what’s going on, why it matters and what we can do about it.

The University of Florida Thompson Earth Systems Institute is advancing communication and education of Earth systems science in a way that inspires Floridians to be effective stewards of our planet.

Created By
Lianne D'Arcy