By Eric Sprague, Director of Forest Conservation
As we stepped out of Lamar Colomander’s truck, we were met with one of North America’s finest birdsongs — Bachman’s sparrow — and the fragrant ‘piney woods’ smell of the surrounding longleaf pine forest. The mature longleaf pine canopy was patchy and allowed plenty of light to hit the forest floor supporting saw palmetto, wiregrass and other plants on the forest floor. To the right of the forest road, a black fox squirrel with a white patch on its nose and feet raced up a nearby tree. These squirrels are so large that some visitors to Norfolk Southern’s Brosnan Forest think they are raccoons.
Longleaf forests like this are some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world outside of the tropics: 900 plant species are found nowhere else and 26 species are threatened or endangered. When asked about longleaf pine restoration, Larry, who manages these forests at Milliken Forestry, told us that this diversity depends on one thing: fire. Periodic, low-intensity fires prevent less fire resistant species from establishing and help create soils that support unique species. Without fires, populations of gopher tortoise, red-cockaded woodpecker, eastern indigo snake and many other species will continue to struggle.
This fire-adapted ecosystem used to cover 90 million acres across the Southeastern United States. Today, longleaf pine forests cover just 3 percent of the former range — a staggering reduction in range that more than rivals well-known losses in southeastern wetland and world rainforest habitats. The Longleaf Alliance, and other private and public partners, have created a plan to expand the area of longleaf forests to 8 million acres by 2024.
American Forests is looking for ways to expand its role in longleaf pine restoration. Over the last 25 years, we have planted 7.4 million longleaf pines in the southeast, but we know much more work is needed. Brosnan Forest was an ideal place to generate ideas as they have been a leader in longleaf pine restoration. Brosnan Forest manages more than 6,000 acres of longleaf pine forest and is actively converting loblolly pine and loblolly/longleaf mixed stands into longleaf pine forest. The Brosnan Forest also converts marginal farmland into longleaf pine forests which can be a difficult process. The key to all of their restoration is, of course, fire. Every couple of years, prescribed fires are introduced into various stands across the forest. Norfolk Southern and Milliken Forestry are also harvesting loblolly pine from stands to create space for longleaf pine regeneration.
Due to the continual need for fire and control of new threats, like the Japanese climbing fern, longleaf pine forest restoration is a long-term investment. Enhancing restoration funding for both public and private lands is a key challenge. Brosnan Forest is an important model in this regards as it represents one of the largest remaining blocks of privately held longleaf pine forest. They are combining traditional forest management with new strategies, like carbon credits, to support restoration. Economic strategies that support habitat restoration and benefit the landowner are paramount, as around 55 percent of existing longleaf forests occur on private lands.
Longleaf pine forests are an important part of the United States cultural and natural heritage. American Forests will continue to work with partners to improve and restore longleaf pine ecosystems across the southeast.