All the beautiful pictures and the large format makes “Longleaf as Far as the Eye Can See” look like a coffee table book and it would serve that purpose well. The longleaf pine ecosystem is truly stunning, but read the text too. Text and picture are exceptionally well coordinated to give an understanding of the history, beauty, complexity and future of North America’s most diverse ecosystem.
Let me share a few key points of the book. Longleaf pine ecosystems are so diverse because they combine forest, prairie, marsh and bog components. A mature longleaf forest features widely spaced trees that allow lots of sunlight to reach the ground, where a rich mixture of grasses, forbs and flowers can grow.
Longleaf biomes were dominant along the coasts and into the piedmont from southern Virginia to Texas. Scientist are unsure of the exact range of longleaf, since much of the range was among the first areas to be settled. Jamestown was founded at the northern edge of the longleaf range and the Royal Navy’s need for timber and naval stores from the longleaf forests and their proximity to easily navigable rivers and inlets assured that this resource was exploited very early. When they were cleared, the area formerly occupied by longleaf proved good for cotton and other crops.Large areas of longleaf forests survived, nevertheless, until the 20th Century. It was in the late 19th Century when the forests of the Great Lakes region were timbered out and the country turns south for the wood needed to build the nation. They might have survived this too – after all trees grow back – except for the unfortunate battle against fire. Forest companies, state and Federal authorities almost unanimously agreed the fire was the scourge of forests. They worked hard and effectively to exclude fire. It was a well-coordinated public outreach. They ridiculed the “bad” Southern practice of setting fires in the piney woods and even could point to mass entertainment. Remember the terrifying fire in Walt Disney’s “Bambi.” You can imagine some poor guy trying to explain to his kids why he set fires.
The problem is that the longleaf pine ecosystem is not only fire adapted but fire dependent. The pines need regular fire in order to grow. And, fire really cannot be excluded. The choice is not between fire and no fire. The real choice is between infrequent big and disastrous fires and regular smaller ones that keep the area clean. But the public campaign worked too well. Longleaf did not regenerate because there was no fire.
But it got even worse for longleaf. Loblolly, longleaf, shortleaf, and slash pines are all classified as southern pine for timber purposes. Longleaf produces a better quality wood, but it grows slower at first. If you plan to harvest before around twenty years, i.e. pulp or pellets, there is no distinction between longleaf and loblolly. Loblolly grows faster and it was easier to establish (this is no longer true, BTW, because of developments in planting and nursery techniques.) Slash pine enjoys similar advantages, although over a smaller range. Foresters and landowners turned to these other types of southern pine.
That was then. In recent years, foresters and landowners have come to appreciate that longleaf pines are nearly impervious to drought, much more resistant to pine beetles and other pests and much less likely to break in storms. Scientists have begun better to understand the complex ecosystem and the importance of fire in maintaining it. Institutions such as the Longleaf Alliance, Wild Turkey Federation and the Nature Conservancy are working diligently to restore longleaf on private lands and reserves. And state and Federal authorities have developed programs that encourage the restoration of longleaf ecosystems. Longleaf will never again cover large areas of the American South, as far as the eye can see, but it will be back.
I would like to add a personal takeaway, something the information in this book has inspired me to do. The longleaf pine is not as shade intolerant as loblolly. While they do require significant direct sunlight, longleaf pine can and do grow in mixed age forests. Young longleaf can linger in relative shade for a long time and then they respond well to release if sun gets to them. What is required are relatively large but not massive open areas, in some ways similar to oak regeneration. The book described a method of gradually converting loblolly to longleaf. You start with a deep thinning, leaving only a few loblollies per acre. This provides income needed to justify the experiment and pay for the forestry. Longleaf are planted under the loblolly. The loblollies are spaced widely enough that they do not shade out the longleaf, but they are thick enough to shade out briars and blackberries. They also provide some protection from ice storms. Fire can be introduced into the system. The mature loblollies are big enough not to be killed by the fire, but the fire will eliminate loblolly seedlings and control other woody vegetation. I am planning to thin around 80 acres in 2017. I think I will try this method on that tract. I already have five acres of longleaf there, planted in 2017. It might be interesting to make the whole thing longleaf.