The "tree that built the South" is in a rebuilding mode of its own - due to a movement led by a group of Auburn University foresters.

Longleaf pine, the source of most of the hardwood-tough "heart pine" in older southern homes, had dwindled from 90 million acres across the South to less than three million in 1996, when faculty from AU's School of Forestry established the Longleaf Alliance in cooperation with Auburn-based U.S. Forest Service scientists.

AU and Forest Service scientists have received an Honor Award from Dan Glickman, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for their efforts to re-establish the once dominant species of pine across the southern landscape. The award is the highest presented by the USDA.

More prominant spot By encouraging landowners to plant the slower growing, but hardier species of pine, Longleaf Alliance members have enabled the longleaf pine to regain a more prominent spot in the southern landscape.

Based at AU's Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center between Andalusia and Brewton, the Longleaf Alliance now has 750 members across the Southern Coastal Plain that stretches 150 to 250 miles inland from Virginia to Texas.

"The longleaf is an interesting tree that enthusiasts develop a real passion for," says Dean Gjerstad, an AU forestry professor and co-director of the Longleaf Alliance. "The longleaf is part of our southern heritage."

Rhett Johnson, the alliance's other co-director, said longleaf pine was once so dominant across the Southern Coastal Plain that it became known as "the tree that built the South."

Although valued for timber and utility poles, the longleaf lost favor among timber producers as growers switched to the faster-growing loblolly and other pine species for the pulp and paper industry. Longleaf also proved harder for growers to plant commercially, and fire control efforts hampered natural regeneration of longleaf pines, which depended on fire to maintain its ecosystem.

Things turning around "Everything seemed to be working against it for a long time, but we are beginning to turn things around," said Johnson, who is director of AU's Dixon Center, where longleaf is now the dominant tree on 2,400 of the center's 5,000 acres. The species now accounts for two-thirds of the center's upland forest.

"Longleaf produces products of high economic value, offsetting the slower growth," said Johnson. In addition to higher value of wood and utility poles, longleaf forests produce a much higher grade of pine straw that is in high demand for urban landscaping, he said.

Longleaf pines are more resistant to diseases, insects and fire than other varieties of pines, Gjerstad noted. A longer taproot also makes them more resistant to toppling in heavy winds, he added.

Addressing the biggest obstacle to commercial production of longleafs, Auburn and USDA researchers are developing new means for growers to establish stands of the seedlings. Containerized seedlings hold promise of over-coming that obstacle, Gjerstad said.

Much of the attention so far has been on building a base of support among timber growers along the Coastal Plain, but Johnson said the tree has significant potential as an urban tree. "It is a really unique and beautiful tree that is low in maintenance and is well-suited for home-landscaping," he said.

Besides Gjerstad and Johnson, the AU forestry faculty researchers in the Longleaf Alliance are John Kush and Ralph Meldalha. The research coordinator is Mark Hainds, the alliance's only full-time employee.

The USDA group leader in the alliance is Charles McMahon of the U.S. Forest Service's Southern Research Station at Auburn.