At one point in time, longleaf pine forests in the United States stretched 90 million acres, from Virginia to Texas–but fire suppression, agriculture and development combined to devastate this critical ecosystem.
For decades, longleaf pines, which can reach 100 feet tall, have been harvested for their high-quality timber and replaced by faster growing loblolly and slash pines. But thanks to a diverse group of public and private interests, including The Nature Conservancy, the acreage of longleaf forests and longleaf-dominated forests has rebounded from record lows to increase for the first time in more than 40 years.
Longleaf forests now cover 3.3 million acres nationwide, up from a low of 2.8 million acres. Similarly, the acreage of longleaf- dominated forestland has increased to 4.2 million acres, up from 3.9 million acres. While these gains may seem small, this upward trend illustrates the importance of strong science, and smart, collaborative conservation.
Restoring the health of longleaf pine forests is critically important in a state like Texas. Mature stands of longleaf pine provide ideal nesting and foraging for the imperiled red-cockaded woodpecker, as well as the Bachman’s sparrow, eastern wild turkey, bobwhite quail and 67 other species of birds. The tree’s seeds, which contain 25 percent protein, provide an important food source for a number of small mammals.
In a bid to continue this upward trend of longleaf pine forest restoration, The Nature Conservancy recently helped secure an easement on 4,784 acres of Texas longleaf forestland in an area known as Longleaf Ridge. Located north of Jasper, Texas, the easement is adjacent to the Conservancy’s 132-acre Little Rocky Preserve. Both tracts protect longleaf pine forests and all that they encompass–hillside pitcher plant bogs, American beech slope forests and spring-fed streams.
We are also restoring longleaf pines in the Big Thicket region of East Texas. At our 5,654-acre Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary, efforts to re-establish stands of wet and dry longleaf pine savannahs (using tools such as reforestation and fire management) are creating open-floor forests with diverse grasses, forbs and wildflowers that offer myriad benefits to birds and wildlife. That preserve is open to the public for hiking, photography and bird watching– it is Site #17 on the Upper Loop of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail and is included in the Top 500 Birding Places by the American Bird Conservancy. Visitors can also rent canoes and kayaks from local vendors.
By The Nature Conservancy
main photo: Village Creek flows through a thicket of longleaf pines at the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary in East Texas. © The Nature Conservancy/Lynn McBride