Longleaf pine stand in Osceola National Forest.

Longleaf pine stand in Osceola National Forest. The understory is dominated with saw-palmetto. Credit: Geoff Gallice

Longleaf pine was once one of the most extensive forest ecosystems in North America, covering an estimated 90 million acres, an area roughly the size of Montana. It spanned the Gulf and Atlantic coastal plains from Virginia to Texas and also reached further inland in areas of Florida, Alabama and Georgia.

Today, the cumulative impacts of a changing landscape have rendered longleaf pine forests one of the most endangered ecosystems in the United States. Less than four percent of longleaf pine forests remain — roughly 3.4 million acres. What’s more, a mere 12,000 of those acres — an area half the size of Montana’s largest city, Billings — are populated by old-growth longleaf pine. Even worse, the remaining longleaf pine is in largely fragmented stands and much is in poor condition.

Longleaf pine branch.

Longleaf pines have the longest needles of all southern pines. Needles range from seven to 18 inches in length. Credit: Bobistraveling/Flickr

The disappearance of longleaf forests is primarily the result of lumber production and land-use changes. Longleaf pine was harvested significantly throughout the 19th century, and historical longleaf forests were converted into urban communities, agricultural lands or industrial pine plantations.

When longleaf pine was in its prime, it was one of the most ecologically important tree species in the southern United States. Its forests hosted nearly 900 different plant species. Today, these forests are home to an estimated 100 bird, 36 mammal and 170 reptile and amphibian species. In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed 29 species that are associated with longleaf pine forests as threatened or endangered. One of the endangered species the longleaf pine supports is the red-cockaded woodpecker, a keystone species that is essential for the survival of 27 other animal species.

The gopher tortoise, a keystone species in longleaf forests.

The gopher tortoise is a keystong species in longleaf forests because it digs burrows that provide shelter for more than 300 animal species. Longleaf pine ecosystems provide extreme conditions such as sandy sites for gopher’s habitation. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region

Recognizing the ecological importance of the species, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has established the Longleaf Pine Initiative. The Longleaf Pine Initiative is part of NRCS’ “all lands” approach, assisting forest landowners in effectively conserving standing longleaf pine while restoring and enhancing longleaf forests for ecosystem benefits. Restoring these forests will improve critical wildlife habitat, water quality and resistance to insect and disease infestation. Since 2010, more than $17 million in funding from NRCS’ Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program has been targeted to assist longleaf pine landowners with this work. NRCS and its Department of Agriculture interagency working group set a goal to protect, restore or enhance an additional 4.6 million acres of longleaf pine by 2025. More resources are needed, but NRCS has identified

Red-cockaded woodpecker.

Red-cockaded woodpecker. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region

priority areas within nine targeted states to ensure significant results. This initiative is one of the landscape conservation initiatives that enable NRCS to more effectively address priority natural resource concerns by delivering systems of practice primarily to the most vulnerable lands within geographic focus areas.

American Forests has long recognized the importance of restoring longleaf pine and the red-cockaded woodpecker. As a member of the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR) Steering Committee, American Forests has taken a lead role in advocating for Florida’s

Young longleaf pine

Young longleaf pine. Credit: Bobistraveling/Flickr

Accelerating Longleaf Pine Restoration CFLR Project, which is committed to improving longleaf forest health across 567,800 acres in Osceola National Forest by 2020. We’ve also worked to restore longleaf pine through our Global ReLeaf program. Since 1992, American Forests has funded the planting of nearly four million longleaf pine across more than 8,500 acres in the state of Florida alone. This year, we are supporting the planting of an additional 420,000-plus longleaf pine in Osceola National Forest. When these trees mature, they could serve as potential habitat for approximately 315 red-cockaded woodpeckers, which would be a nine percent increase from the state’s current population and a 2.25 percent increase from the current national population.

The Global ReLeaf program depends in part on the support of dedicated members like you. With your help, American Forests can continue to expand our work restoring longleaf pine ecosystems to their historic populations.

Jami Westerhold, Esq., writes from Washington, D.C., and is American Forests’ director of forest restoration.