By Josh DeLacey

When Alabama became a state in 1819, up to 90 million acres (140,000 square miles) of longleaf pine forests stretched across the southeastern United States. That’s an area almost the size of Montana — an area larger than all the national parks combined — all covered in towering pine trees. Early settlers described the forests as “limitless.”

Longleaf pine. Credit: Randy Browning/USFWS
Longleaf pine. Credit: Randy Browning/USFWS

Now, just two million acres of longleaf forests remain — less than three percent of the historic range — and less than half a percent of that is old growth. If you don’t want to do the math, there are just 12,000 scattered acres of old-growth longleaf left, down from 90 million. Because longleaf pines are slow growing, they produce strong wood, and because they consistently grow straight, they make ideal material for masts, telephone poles and beams. From the 1880s to 1920s, longleaf was heavily harvested, and by the 1930s, the forests were a fraction of their former size. This led harvesters and foresters to take action to try to help the longleaf, recognizing the importance of the species and its forest ecosystem.

Unfortunately, the two policies that were implemented actually harmed longleaf pines even further. First, harvesters began to rely on slash and loblolly pines. Although those species produced inferior wood, they did it cheaper, easier and quicker than the persnickety longleaf pine, which meant that while the longleaf was no longer being harvested, it also wasn’t being replanted through emerging sustainability practices.

I call longleaf pines persnickety because they require periodic groundfires in order to compete with other wildlife. And that leads to the second harmful policy: fire suppression. In the early and mid-20th century, the U.S. Forest Service prevented wildfires far too successfully for longleaf pines to thrive. So of the longleaf forests that once could have covered Montana, they now could only fill half of the state’s largest city, Billings.

As frustrating as that decimation is, it doesn’t stop with longleaf pines themselves. Longleafs provide huge benefits for their ecosystems, and without them, the nation is missing a very valuable resource.

A prescribed burn helps keep a longleaf ecosystem healthy.
A prescribed burn helps keep a longleaf ecosystem healthy. Credit: John Maxwell/USFWS

Because here’s the thing about longleaf pines:

  • They support biodiversity. Nearly 600 species are associated with longleaf pine ecosystems. Half of those are considered rare, more than 100 are at-risk and 30 are threatened or endangered. Some of the best known of these species are indigo snakes, red-cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoises and flatwoods salamanders.
  • They provide erosion control. Longleaf pines can grow where other pines can’t, including sandy, dry and infertile soil or steep, mountainous slopes.
  • They’re durable. Longleaf pines are more resistant to diseases, insects, fires and storms than other southeastern pines. This makes them well-suited for climate change, ready to withstand extreme weather and climates.

American Forests is working on several programs to restore longleaf forests through Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration projects and our Global ReLeaf work. For the last two years, we’ve partnered with Alcoa Foundation to plant longleaf pines near Charleston, S.C. For these projects, local Alcoa employees join other volunteers to help restore longleaf to their native habitat. And these are just a few of our longleaf projects.

So remember the longleaf pines and help us bring them back.