Tall and majestic longleaf pine trees once covered more than 90 million acres in the Southeast, though down to about 3 million acres today, these native trees and the ecosystem they support are making a comeback in many areas.

Speaking at a recent field day at the PeeDee Agricultural Extension and Research Center in Florence, S.C., T.J. Savereno, an Extension forestry specialist at Clemson University, noted both the historical and modern day importance of longleaf pines in the development of the United States.

One of the fastest growing agricultural enterprises is ‘eco-agriculture.’

Many Southeastern land-owners have converted parts of their farmland to use for contract hunting, fishing, camping and even bird-watching. The ecosystem supported by native longleaf pines fits perfectly into the business plan for such rural enterprises.

From a dollars and cents standpoint, Savereno says longleaf pines are an attractive alternative for land-owners in the Southeast.

Timber from these trees is very desirable because it tends to be long, straight and has tight growth rings. Timber from these trees tends to bring a premium price in comparison to loblolly pines.

Longleaf pines produce a high percentage of ‘pole’ timber. These long, straight poles are used extensively for power poles and for other commercial uses.

Prices for poles tend to not go up and down so much as does the price for saw-timber, making longleaf pines a good economic investment in some cases.

These native trees also produce a huge amount of pine straw. Early in the rotation with longleaf pines, landowners can harvest high volumes of high quality straw, Savereno says.

Early income

The high value and early production of straw helps landowners offset the long period between planting and harvesting these trees, he says.

Longleaf pines can survive 300-400 years, and under good growing conditions can exceed 120 feet or so, much taller and sturdier than more highly cultivated loblolly and slash pines, which are now the dominant pine trees in the Southeast.

Longleaf pines are filled with tar and pitch, which were used extensively in trade in Colonial times.

More importantly, the resin from these trees was used to build ships, which allowed early settlers to expand commerce within the colonies and later with Europe, Asia and South America.

Savereno says changes in global weather patterns are forcing governments around the world, including the United States, to take a new look at native forest species and ecosystems that are better equipped to deal with dramatic changes in local weather systems.

More intense weather and climate extremes that are now being directly linked to increasing frequency and severity of fires, hurricanes, droughts, and floods will most directly impact highly cultivated, highly commercial forests.

There is mounting scientific evidence that global warming pollution is accumulating in the atmosphere. If accurate, this means more severe storm, sea-level rise, and other climate changes, which will stress natural ecosystems and force rural communities and government leaders to re-think strategies for developing Southeast land for forest use.

Savereno says longleaf pines may play a big part in the long-term land use plans in many parts of the Southeast.

He says these trees are better equipped to handle fire from lightning generated by more frequent and severe thunderstorms.

Historically, in a native setting, frequent fires reduced the amount of litter on the ground, so they were mostly low-intensity, surface blazes that killed few trees.

Fires in the spring or early summer cleared the ground of grasses and needles so that seeds from longleaf pines could quickly absorb the nutrients in the ash.

Benefit from fire

Longleaf pines are truly a species born to benefit from fire.

After several years of developing a strong tap root system, longleaf pines begin to grow in 2-3 feet spurts during each growing season. This fast growth quickly lifts their growing tips above the level of most ground fires, and once they add a thick bark, these trees become immune to all but the hottest fires.

Up until the turn of the 20th Century, longleaf pines thrived in a variety of soil and meteorological conditions and were found a few feet from the ocean, to more than 200 miles inland and on mountain ridges 2,500 feet high.

The modern-day descendants of these trees have proven to be more adaptable to other extreme weather incidences than most commercial species in the Southeast, according to Savereno.

“A few years back Hurricane Hugo came through South Carolina with a devastating effect on forest land. Subsequent studies showed that longleaf pines survived at a much higher rate than loblolly pines and better than other tree species,” the Clemson specialist says.

He points out that longleaf pines also are generating a lot of interest in enhancing carbon sequestration. These trees simply grow taller and last longer than most other forest species, hence they make a much larger positive carbon footprint than other species.

Improved forest management will be an important tool in the effort to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and thus limit the overall amount of warming during the coming decades.

Longleaf pine ecosystems are well suited for long-term storage of carbon. Longleaf pine trees live longer than other southern pine species and are less susceptible to fire, pests, and storms. These trees also produce wood more likely to be used in long-lasting structures.

Much of the private land that has been devoted to raising native longleaf pines has been done by individuals and groups trying to bring back and enhance wildlife species that flourished in the native ecosystem dominated by longleaf pines.

Turkey and quail populations in particular have been increased by introduction of longleaf pines into the ecosystem. Though less popularized, bird watching is among the top outdoor recreation activities in the U.S. and song bird species seem to thrive when longleaf pines are introduced into a rural ecosystem.

In some parts of the Southeast, longleaf pine ecosystems are the only places to find rapidly disappearing native species of plants and animals.

Nearly 900 plant species, found in longleaf forests, are found nowhere else in the world.

Of the 290 reptile and amphibian species found in the Southeast, 170 are found in longleaf pine ecosystems.

Of the species on the Federal Endangered or Threatened Species List, 26 are found in longleaf pine ecosystems. Included among these species are the red-cockaded woodpecker and gopher tortoise.

rroberson@farmpress.com