By Doyle Irvin, American Forests

Gopher Tortoise

Have you ever been on a subway car that was so packed that you felt like you had to fight for every breath? Where people couldn’t reach handholds, and any jerk or twist on the track would send a dozen people sprawling? Where finally walking out and recuperating your sense of space felt like unequalled bliss? If you have, you can understand what we at American Forests are trying to provide for the gopher tortoise and its native longleaf pine habitat.

Once spanning from Virginia down to Florida and then over to eastern Texas, the longleaf pine historically covered nearly 90 million acres of verdant wilderness. Then, European settlers arrived. The longleaf forests were clear-cut, replaced with agriculture and prevented from having the periodic fires that the tree communities depend on.

Today, the longleaf pine is cramped into just 3 percent of their original range, barely enough room to breathe and certainly not enough to foster the incredibly diverse wildlife they are famous for. They also face new threats, such as the Japanese climbing fern.

Hundreds of unique species of flora and fauna rely on longleaf pine ecosystems for their survival, but one of the most special is the gopher tortoise. These little creatures earn their name by burrowing under the ground, creating tunnels that can be as long as 40 feet and as deep as 10 feet. They use these tunnels for shelter from the periodic fires that the longleaf forests are adapted to, but they are not the only ones: more than 360 other species also use the tortoise’s tunnels for shelter, perhaps explaining why this forest community is so well adapted to these fires. Gopher tortoises are considered a keystone species because of this.

The gopher tortoise has been inhabiting these forests for the last 60 million years but is now listed as threatened or endangered in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. To add to that, there are roughly 900 plant species that are only found in longleaf pine ecosystems, and 26 other threatened or endangered species.

American Forests recognized the significance of saving these beautiful forests in 1994, and since then we have planted more than 7.4 million longleaf pine trees. We are proud to have had such a major part to play in the restoration of these communities, but we also know that the work is far from finished — remember, we are still at just 3 percent of their historic range.

This winter, we are joining our corporate partners and individuals — like you! — in a major Home for the Holidays initiative, working towards reestablishing the space that so many different animals need just to breathe. Help us protect the future of this invaluable ecosystem with a contribution today through our Home for the Holidays initiative.