Talladega National Forest
Talladega National Forest. Credit: C K Hartman.

THE ROLLING HILLS OF THE OAKMULGEE RANGER DISTRICT in Alabama’s Talladega National Forest is once again beginning to thrive with the longleaf pine trees that belong there. What makes this land so unique is the complex and long history it has survived.

Before being settled, the land we now call Talladega National Forest was dominated by longleaf pine. But now, longleaf only exists in about 3.4 million acres of the original 90 million acres that used to thrive — that’s roughly 3 percent.

Settlers converted the area to farmland, but the farms eventually failed during the Great Depression. President Roosevelt then designated 157,000 acres as a national forest in 1936, and began restoration efforts. Unfortunately, non-native trees were planted, and the forest became stressed and at major risk of wildfire. In 1986, the U.S. Forest Service began to replace the dying trees with native longleaf pines and started implementing more responsible fire management practices. The forest is recovering, allowing for even more successful restoration efforts and recuperation of wildlife.

Much of the wildlife native to the area had been forced onto the endangered list due to the decades of widespread habitat loss. For example, the red-cockaded woodpecker, a keystone species that is essential for the survival of 27 other animal species is endangered, and the gopher tortoise, another keystone species that digs burrows that provide shelter for more than 360 species, is threatened. Additionally, the forest is home to 100 bird, 36 mammal and 170 reptile and amphibian species, as well as more than 900 plant species, including 29 that are endangered.

American Forests and our partner organization, The Longleaf Alliance, has been and will continue restoring this precious longleaf pine habitat. Together, we are planting nearly 88,000 trees in 2017, during our Oakmulgee Ranger District Restoration project, part of American Forests’ longleaf restoration mission that includes projects across the Southeastern U.S., from Louisiana to Virginia. This project will continue through 2019, and the Longleaf Alliance plans to establish 8 million acres of longleaf by 2025.

The Longleaf Alliance’s mission is to “ensure a sustainable future for the longleaf pine ecosystem through partnerships, landowner assistance and science-based education and outreach.” Its president, Robert Abernethy, has devoted himself to this project in order to restore what he calls “one of the most diverse forests in North America.”

According to Abernethy, the soil, vegetation, topography and historical land use have created a one-of-a-kind mosaic of habitats that is waiting to flourish again.

“The opportunity to accelerate forest restoration has presented itself because of the mix of tree species as well as the mix of soil types,” he says.

Almost 10,000 acres of the forest still need to be restored. With the longleaf pines we are planting this year, American Forests and The Longleaf Alliance will bring the forest a few steps closer to where it needs to be to support everything and everyone that depends on it. And, in the words of Abernethy, “we can get it done.”

To learn more about longleaf pine ecosystems and the woodpecker species that inhabit them, check out “Woodpeckers: The Engineers of Ecosystems.”

Melanie Friedel was American Forests’ Summer 2017 communications intern and is a rising junior at American University, studying Environmental Science.