Restoring longleaf pine forests improves wildlife habitat and drought resilience in the Southeast
Longleaf pine trees once dominated large swaths of the country’s landscape, covering more than 90 million acres—or roughly the area of Montana—from Virginia to eastern Texas. But this all began to change around the beginning of the 20th century, when longleaf pine was found to be excellent building material for ships and railroads. By the 1920s, most of these trees were gone, and many foresters replaced them with other types of pine that were thought to grow faster and offer a quicker return on investment.
Today, only 3.4 million acres of longleaf forests remain, and much of this is spread sparsely across the Southeast. This poses some serious challenges for game species and communities that are at risk of extreme weather events.
Longleaf Is a Lifeline
With the potential to support roughly 100 types of birds, dozens of species of mammals, and nearly 200 kinds of reptiles and amphibians, longleaf pine forests are some of the most diverse ecosystems in North America. Sportsmen and women know them best as critical habitat for bobwhite quail, wild turkeys, and whitetail deer.
Longleaf, even as a seedling, is highly resistant to wildfire, and its wide-set leaves create a more open forest canopy so more sunlight can reach plant life on the ground. With a little help from strategic prescribed burning, longleaf forests can have incredibly healthy underbrush with native grasses and vegetation that offer food and shelter for wildlife.
But we need longleaf pines for more than just great habitat—they are master adapters that can survive the harshest weather events and a wide range of climates. A study conducted after Hurricane Katrina found that longleaf pine trees were better able to withstand hurricane winds than other types of pine trees. More storm resilience means less costly damage to wildlife habitat and forestry businesses.
As if that wasn’t enough, these trees are also more resilient to drought, can better withstand pests and most diseases, and store carbon more effectively than other pine species. All of this makes longleaf a win for our critters and for communities that face major storms and drought.
We Need Millions More
Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that by 2060 the South will lose up to 67,000 square miles of forest to development and other habitat challenges.
But there is hope. The federal agencies that carry out conservation in America, along with dozens of non-governmental partners—including key TRCP allies, such as the National Wildlife Turkey Federation, The Nature Conservancy, and National Wildlife Federation—have joined forces on the “Million Acre Challenge” to add one million acres of longleaf pine to public lands in the coming years. This would go a long way toward helping the Forest Service complete its goal of putting 8 million total acres of longleaf pine habitat on the landscape by 2025.
Recent passage of the 2018 Farm Bill could help, too. Programs such as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and the Conservation Stewardship Program help to coordinate landscape-scale conservation projects and reduce the cost for private landowners to restore or enhance their longleaf pine forests. With more than $5 billion in conservation funding to support private land efforts, the Farm Bill is a big win for habitat, but we also need strong funding for the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service to help take on forest restoration.
The TRCP is committed to ensuring that the federal agencies have what they need to maintain and enhance our forests across public and private lands. And a powerhouse habitat-creator and wildfire-defender like longleaf pine is a great way to invest those dollars. It’s a critical down payment on the future of hunting and fishing in the Southeast.