I remember… longleaf forests. Nearly lost forever, see how we have brought back 3 million acres in a generation

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Prescribed fire at a longleaf pine forest. (Longleaf Alliance Facebook page)

Did you know that the southern longleaf pine forest was once the dominant forest ecosystem in Alabama and the South?

Natural resource historians believe the fire-dependent park-like forest covered between 60 to 90 million acres during colonial times from the eastern seaboard to Texas. In Alabama, up to two-thirds of our forests were longleaf.

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(South Carolina Forestry Commission)

Nearly two centuries later, longleaf has nearly disappeared from the Southern landscape—dwindling to only two or three million acres of poorly managed longleaf forests. 

In the mid-1990s, the longleaf forests found a pair of champions: Auburn forestry professors Rhett Johnson and Dean Gjerstad.

Johnson and Gjerstad established the The Longleaf  Alliance, and have since helped double the South’s longleaf forests, adding more than three million acres in a little over 25 years.

“I Remember” Series

longleaf
(USFS)

This is our first installment in a series called “I remember”—where we take a look back at the landscapes, forests, ecosystems, wildlife and rivers we have forgotten in Alabama, then rediscovered and are working to bring back.

Here is the story of the longleaf pine forest.

Boots and Sandals

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Longleaf Pine trees in Bibb County (Pat Byington/Bham Now)

Rhett Johnson had not been able to attend The Longleaf Alliance Biennial Longleaf Conference for years because of the Covid-19 pandemic. This made October’s summit in Wilmington, North Carolina all the more special.

It was a homecoming.

“It was as exciting as any natural resource conference I’ve ever been to,” Johnson told me in his Lowcountry South Carolina accent. “It is the most eclectic audience you will ever find at a natural resource conference. It was boots and sandals.”

Everyone was there to talk about the state of the longleaf pine forest. There were loggers—the boots—extolling the value of a longleaf tree. And across the room, there might be a gopher tortoise ecologist—sandals—talking about how this rare keystone creature that loves living in longleaf forests creates a shelter for over 300 other animals from the burrows it builds.

“It is always a sight to see a dyed-in-the-wool ecologist and a dyed-in-the-wool logger sitting together, ” added Johnson. “Dean (Gjerstad) would always say, it doesn’t matter how good the program is, (if) you run out of beer, you know we had a successful conference. We brought people together that otherwise would never interact—people that may have entirely different perspectives on natural resources, but we all love and appreciate natural resources. We created a common forum.”

Bringing people together from all walks of life to rally for longleaf is the key to restoring the longleaf forest

What is a Longleaf Tree and Forest?

Birmingham, Oak Mountain State Park
Mountain longleaf pine at Oak Mountain State Park. (Oak Mountain State Park)

A southeastern native tree, the longleaf’s needles can reach up to 18 inches. Native Americans used these needles for baskets. A mature tree can grow up to more than 100 feet tall and live to over 400 years old. In the early settlement days, the tree was used for homes and even for shipbuilding.  

The secret to a longleaf forest’s success is fire. Its downfall is fire suppression. Longleaf pine seedlings and saplings need full sunlight to thrive. Without fire, faster-growing plants shade them out. Fire keeps other trees and plants—competitors—in check.

Before the settlers came to Alabama and the South, Native Americans would allow lightning strikes to “burn” the forests. They were also known to do some burning themselves.  

Longleaf
(U.S. Forest Service)

When settlers arrived, they cleared the land to build towns and communities. Because the deforested areas were not reseeded and managed for longleaf, faster growing competitors like certain hardwoods and loblolly pine forests took over, transforming the ecosystem.

“We lost it without realizing it by a death of 1000 cuts, literally,” said Johnson. “With it, we lost a lot of history. It is a tree that built the South.”

And then the knockout blow for longleaf came after World War II. Fire suppression was national policy led by one of the most successful mascots in U.S. history—Smokey Bear.

An Ecological Catastrophe

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Gopher tortoise (Rhett Johnson)

“Many of the native plants and animals that we have in Alabama evolved in this fire adapted ecosystem,” said Keith Tassin with The Nature Conservancy in Alabama. “The reason that many of those species are now rare is because of fire suppression and conversion of these ecosystems to development and industrial pine plantations.”

Some of the plants and wildlife we almost lost include:

  • Red-Cockaded Woodpecker—a bird that nests in old-growth longleaf forests
  • Indigo Snake—a non-venomous snake that can reach up to eight feet in length
  • Gopher Tortoise—a tortoise that thrives in longleaf forest habitat
  • Bobwhite Quail—a game bird whose population declined drastically because of longleaf’s disappearance 
  • Pitcher Plants—rare carnivorous plants that are fire-dependent and eat bugs 

“There’s just something about the longleaf ecosystem. It’s one of the richest ecosystems outside of the tropics and coral reefs,” according to Johnson.

A Movement Was Born

In the mid-90s, both Johnson and Gjerstad founded The Longleaf Alliance when they realized longleaf was slowly fading away from the landscape. They held their first meeting at Auburn University’s Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center. They were shocked at the interest they discovered in restoring or at least retaining it.

It was apparent within months that it was an idea with legs. Over the next few months and subsequent years, they held workshops, met landowners and conservationists. They built a movement. It wasn’t an easy task, encouraging forest owners to replant their forest into longleaf and burn their land periodically.

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Longleaf pine cone on Solon Dixon Center (Rhett Johnson)

“It was a chicken and egg thing. We had to create a nursery industry that grew good trees.” said Johnson. “We had to create a dependable replanting technique. Nothing is worse than having somebody spend money to plant a longleaf and not be successful. And then we tried to teach what we learned.”

“What The Longleaf Alliance did was focus everyone on this particular forest in the South that led to America’s Longleaf Initiative,” explained The Nature Conservancy’s Tassin

As a result, the multi-partner-driven America’s Longleaf Initiative has raised millions of dollars, planted a couple of million acres in longleaf pine trees and helped restore the longleaf forests.

Corridor of Resilient and Connected Lands

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Splinter Hill Bog in Baldwin County (Pat Byington/Bham Now)

“Our focus is protecting a corridor of resilient and connected lands from the Gulf of Mexico to the Appalachian Mountains. And a large portion of that goes through historic longleaf pine habitats that are either existing or will need to be restored as part of those efforts,” Tassin concluded.

What are these places within the corridor?

 Longleaf Today

Screen Shot 2020 12 01 at 2.26.18 PM I remember… longleaf forests. Nearly lost forever, see how we have brought back 3 million acres in a generation
Frequently burned old growth longleaf pine with rich herbaceous ground cover. (Mark Bailey)

Rhett Johnson is very humble about his role in helping to restore three million acres of longleaf throughout the South. His beloved Longleaf Alliance now has 32 staffers working with partners and landowners from Texas to Virginia.

“We were just like Johnny Appleseed—we welcomed everybody in,” Johnson said with a grin.

Next in the “I Remember” Series

In our second “I Remember” story, we will look at how we nearly lost wild quail and wild turkey in Alabama and the conservation efforts to bring them back.

Have you ever visited a longleaf forest? Share your experience with us on social. Tag us at @bhamnow

Sponsored by:

Pat Byington
Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.

Articles: 2004