Well over 400 years ago, before the United States was even a twinkle in the eyes of the founding fathers, 90 million acres of what would become the Southeastern United States was blanketed with longleaf pine forests. By the turn of the 21st century, things had changed drastically. Longleaf pines were growing on only 3.4 million acres, much of which was fragmented and degraded.
The growth of a new nation, urbanization and deforestation took a toll on highly valuable landscape, not to mention the wildlife that once thrived in those forests. Twenty-nine species that depend on longleaf forest are federally listed as threatened or endangered.
But today landowners, in partnership with government and private conservation organizations, are working to reverse the decline. USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), conservation groups and private landowners launched in 2010 a deliberate effort to restore the longleaf pine ecosystem. It is by way of the Longleaf Pine Initiative (LLPI) that landowners and government are working toward a goal to restore or enhance an additional 4.5 million acres of longleaf pine range by 2025.
Nine southern states are part of the initiative -- Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
In Mississippi, Jim Barnes, an area forester with NRCS based in Hattiesburg, said since the LLPI began nearly a decade ago, private landowners in the state better understand the benefits that result from establishing or improving on the longleaf pine ecosystem.
SUCCESS HAS CHALLENGES
The LLPI has not seen a 100% success rate, but private plantings of longleaf pines are one bright spot. The Longleaf Partnership Council reports in 2017 (the most recent data), 131,250 acres of longleaf pine were planted. That was a 6% decline from 2016 and continues a five-year trend of declining plantings. However, planted acreage on private lands increased to 111,845 acres, a 2% increase over 2016. Part of the reason for the slow growth, or even decline, in plantings is that longleaf management is not a "plant and walk away" proposition.
"The environment of a longleaf pine stand is very diverse and has a lot of value, both economically and for the various wildlife species associated with it," Barnes explained. "Private landowners who come to NRCS for assistance in forest management or reforestation feel like it was (only) longleaf pines that were here hundreds of years ago, and that's what should be here now."
After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, devastating the landscape in south Mississippi, Barnes said many landowners saw timber prices plummet. Pine pulp that once brought $20 a ton was, post-Katrina, down to $1 a ton in some areas. "The effect of Katrina, plus other factors that had been depressing timber prices before the hurricane, gave landowners the opportunity to rethink their forest-management strategies," Barnes said. "This opportunity, coupled with the financial incentives from NRCS through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Healthy Forests Reserve Program, really helped to jump-start the initiative."
Genetic improvements in longleaf pine seedlings have reduced the time it takes to get seedlings up and out of the grass stage, during which the seedling resembles a clump of grass. The result is a longleaf pine that better competes with other, faster-growing Southern pines.
Maturing longleafs have inherent advantages in diverse pine forests. They are more resistant to disease and insects like the Southern pine beetles and fusiform rust, a widespread disease found in competing and faster-growing loblolly pines. Longleaf pine is more resistant to fire than other Southern pines, and its smaller crown density and deep root system make it hold up better in strong wind events. One study showed that the longleaf pine stands withstood Hurricane Katrina's wind 48 times better than the loblolly pine stands.
Barnes is seeing more private landowner investment in the longleaf pine, because they are interested in more of a long-term investment rather than a short-term one.
One of those landowners is David Porter, who started with about 100 acres of old-growth timber near Waynesboro, Mississippi. From there, he began buying properties that were undervalued, cutover or landlocked -- and sometimes a combination of all three. With assistance from Luke Miller, soil conservation technician at NRCS, and Anthony Cran, from Scotch Land Management, Porter's first reforestation project in 1991 included planting loblolly pines. About 14 years later, he executed his first mid-rotation release and a prescribed burn.
"There's no question that you can take a piece of property that's almost barren of wildlife and do proper thinning and burning, and the explosion of nature that results is pretty remarkable," Porter said. "The birds, specifically turkeys, as well as the deer and squirrel population increases were evident."
THERE IS ASSISTANCE
In 2014, with the new LLPI incentives from the NRCS, Porter planted his first 40-acre plot of longleaf pines. Landowners can qualify for up to 75% payment rates to restore or enhance longleaf pine forests. These payments can help defray the cost of seedlings, plantings and site preparation. The financial and technical assistance Porter received from NRCS and its foresters helped him determine what land would best suit a healthy stand of longleaf pines.
"I worked with my local NRCS office to make sure everything was done correctly," he said. "You can't just throw longleaf out there and come back 30 or 40 years later and get a return on investment."
Barnes said that when a landowner reaches out to NRCS for advice and direction on reforestation with longleaf pines, the agency will start with a field visit to understand soil conditions and smoke-management issues. "Longleaf like fire, so you need to be committed to burning them periodically. We also look at the site. Longleaf does better on well-drained, sandy soils," he said. "If you want to plant longleaf and walk away from them with no management, you probably don't need to be planting longleaf."
PINE STRAW RETURN
In addition to improving the environment and wildlife habitat, longleaf pine forests offer economic benefits. Longleaf pine straw is the preferred straw for landscaping because it has longer needles and fewer cones. Pine straw sales can bring landowners opportunity for an early return on their investment. Mississippi landowners have also realized the value of pole-sized longleaf pine stands. They attract buyers looking for high-quality, straight-grained dimensional lumber and long straight poles for utilities and pilings applications.
"In the last four years, just in our 24-county area in south and central Mississippi, the LLPI has helped reforest about 13,000 acres," Barnes said. "I'm seeing a lot more landowners interested in planting longleaf for all the advantages we've talked about. Landowners see the opportunities and want to leave the land better than the way they got it."
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