Gopher Tortoise
Gopher Tortoise. Credit: USFWS.

We’re nearing the finish line, Global ReLeaf enthusiasts! If there’s one story that conjures images of finish lines, it would be none other than the illustrious tale of the tortoise and the hare — a tale that reminds each of us of the virtues of patience. After all, slow and steady wins the race!

But, what about the race to save the tortoise itself?

American Forests has a longstanding history of protecting and restoring the longleaf pine and the gopher tortoise. This small terrestrial turtle is known as a keystone species throughout its native longleaf range, which extends across the southeast United States — from southern Virginia all the way to Louisiana. Within its longleaf habitat, gopher tortoises are known for their extraordinary digging capacity — they often dig burrows for protection from fire, weather and predators and can dig burrows up to 48 feet in length and nearly 10 feet deep. Furthermore, tortoises are great at sharing; other species often utilize these burrows for shelter, resulting in quite a few neighbors for the small tortoise! In fact, over 360 species utilize these tortoise-dug burrows for protection, including gopher frogs, burrowing owls and the eastern indigo snake.

Longleaf forests have faced threats of their own, and the subsequent loss of habitat has been devastating for the gopher tortoise. Before European settlement, longleaf pine forest dominated nearly 90 million acres across the south. However, clear cutting and other such practices have nearly decimated the longleaf pine ecosystem — currently longleaf pine has been relegated to less than 5 percent of its prior native range.

All hope is not lost, however. Beginning with one of our pioneer longleaf projects, American Forests planted more than 22,000 longleaf pine seedlings in Mississippi in 1994 to restore habitat for this vulnerable turtle and other species. Since this initial endeavor, more than 7 million longleaf pine trees have been planted in our 25-year Global ReLeaf history. We are proud to note that these restoration activities are continuing today — including more than 100,000 longleaf pine being planted in Florida in 2015.