Folks living in or driving through the southeastern United States may have noticed that an iconic tree that once dazzled European settlers, and then all but disappeared, is making a comeback.
The longleaf pine (Pinus palustris), which can grow to a height of 115 feet and whose dark green, needle-like leaves grow to a foot long, fell on hard times as land was cleared for farms and towns in the 18th and 19 th centuries. Healthy stands of longleaf pines once stretched from the coastal plain of Texas to southern Maryland, covering an area of about 143,750 square miles, larger than Germany. But by the late 20th century, stands of the trees were few and far between, with less than 3% remaining. The flora and fauna that once flourished in longleaf savannas were also at risk.
Concerned that the tree was fated to go the way of the carrier pigeon, wildlife enthusiasts from across the region got together in the 1990s in a little-noticed but ultimately successful effort to bring the tree back from the brink of extinction.
Rural landowners, government agencies, birders, and nonprofits teamed up to become modern-day Johnny Appleseeds, planting trees that now cover 7,300 square miles, one quarter of which has been planted since 2010.
Rescuing the Longleaf from the Dustbin
“I like to think we rescued the longleaf from the dustbin. I don’t think we had any idea how successful we’d be,” Rhett Johnson told the
Associated Press at the beginning of the year. Along with Dean Gjerstad, another Auburn University forestry professor, Johnson founded the Longleaf Alliance in 1995. In 2010, they launched America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative with the goal to have 12,500 square
miles of longleaf pines by 2025. And they just might make it.
The Initiative has built on efforts by state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to provide incentives for landowners to return land to longleaf pines. When you bring back longleaf forests, you also bring back their grasslands. The forests and grasslands harbor turkeys and quail, along with 100 other kinds of birds, nearly 40 types of animals and 170 reptile and amphibian species found only among longleaf, the AP notes.
Far Better than the ESA
Nearly 30 of the plants and animals found in longleaf stands are threatened or endangered. The gradual return of the longleaf pine to the Southeast has been accomplished without the meat-cleaver approach of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). While the ESA imposes strict land-use restrictions that often jeopardize the livelihoods of rural landowners, the path taken by those trying to restore the longleaf shows a much better way. The emphasis has been on providing incentives, like those found in theAgriculture Department’s NRCS; the thought being to work with landowners rather than punishing them for harboring at-risk species on their property.
For those eager to keep Big Brother at bay, the restoration of the longleaf pine shows that rural communities working with, rather than under the thumb of government, can outperform the ESA.