Julie Moore pulled her red sports car over to a grassy embankment off an access road in Southern Pines, North Carolina, at the Walthour-Moss Foundation park, which is known for its rolling horse pastures and riding trails. She pointed out the window at a group of longleaf pine trees towering in the overcast February sky. “That,” she said. “That is what we’re looking for.”
The longleaf pine thrives with low undergrowth, giving the forest a sparse, rather than lush, appearance. The trees grow straight, upwards of 50 feet tall, amid clumps of brown wiregrass. Their branches are rough and gnarled at the top, making them look haggard. I said this to Moore; she said that I also wouldn’t look my best if I was 200 years old — the age of many of these pines.
Longleaf once blanketed the Southeast, covering over 90 million acres. But logging and development decimated its populations, reducing remaining longleaf to three million acres across the country. Healthy populations like the ones in Southern Pines are now rare.
Moore, who worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identifying vulnerable species that might become threatened or endangered, has spent over 50 years advocating for the longleaf pine’s restoration. Now retired, she’s working to cultivate her own 70 acres of longleaf pine in Lufkin, Texas, to look like this North Carolina forest.
The Walthour-Moss Foundation pines are part of a land conservancy, meaning they are protected. But roughly 73 percent of remaining longleaf populations exist on privately owned lands — so it is largely up to landowners to decide if and how they want to reintroduce the tree. Moore is one of about 600 property owners in the South currently planting or maintaining longleaf pines who are working with the Longleaf Alliance, a conservation nonprofit. Her trees, located on a tract of family land, are only 20 to 30 years old, so it will be centuries before they reach full maturity and are able to support biodiverse ecosystems.
Since 1995, the Longleaf Alliance has been helping facilitate longleaf reintroduction and management with landowners, foresters, state and federal agencies, and conservation groups. Longleaf pine forests now cover four and a half million acres in the South, and the organization has set an ambitious goal of eight million acres by 2025.
Forest experts say that for the slow-growing longleaf — and the biodiverse forests it helps create — to last another hundred years, landowners like Moore have to reintroduce them, maintain them through prescribed burning, and protect them from logging and development.
“A lot of times when you have one generation passing down land, the next generation doesn’t have a great connection to that land,” said Carol Denhof, president of the Longleaf Alliance. “So we’re focused on really reaching out to that next generation and instilling in them the value of longleaf.”
Longleaf pine forests once stretched from east Texas to the Florida panhandle, reached up through the sandhills of the Carolinas and into southern Virginia. The ubiquitous giant could live up to 500 years and grow up to 120 feet tall and two feet wide. Poets, scientists and historians marveled at the majesty of the tree: in 1791, naturalist William Bartram wrote in his book Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia of a “forest of the great long-leaved pine, the earth covered with grass, interspersed with an infinite variety of herbaceous plants, and embellished with extensive savannas, always green, sparkling with ponds of water.”
Across the Southeast, longleaf forests have been found to house over 1,200 endemic plant species and more than 300 rare or threatened animal species — including endangered species like the red-cockaded woodpecker and the gopher tortoise. Animals make their homes in the tree’s trunks and amongst its needles and burrow through its vast roots systems. “The longleaf system has so many homes, so many microhabitats,” Moore said. “That’s one of the reasons it supports such a diversity of species.”
Incredibly fire resistant, longleaf flourishes when wildfires tear through its forests. Fire burns away other tree species that threaten to choke it out, keeping ground cover low and the tree canopy high. Its lower branches drop when exposed to flame, making the trunk smooth and straight.
Its perfection proved its demise. Longleaf populations that had thrived for nearly 12,000 years under the care and management of Native Americans were demolished by white settlers in under two centuries, used to build ship masts, house frames, railroads and telephones poles. The trees became turpentine, kitchen furniture, hardwood flooring, railings, joists, roofs, and walls.
By the 1920s, mature populations of the tree had almost disappeared, and foresters turned to faster growing pine species to match the pace of the logging industry. The pine that helped build the American South lingered only in areas with government protection or places too difficult to access. One 2012 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that under five percent of remaining longleaf pine forests in the U.S. are fully mature — roughly 12,000 acres. Several species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, depend on old-growth longleaf to make their habitats.
In 1994, two researchers at Auburn University’s School of Forestry gathered conservationists, ecologists, and foresters to assess interest in saving the longleaf pine. Involvement from people in the forestry industry and U.S. Forest Service, Moore said, was what finally sparked widespread conservation efforts including education and research.
Before that meeting, saving longleaf “was a really hard sell, and it was extremely antagonistic dealing with the timber industry,” she said. “We really needed those foresters to help us, rather than ecologists — people who really knew how to manage these forests.”
Foresters help landowners — and companies developing land — maintain longleaf populations by assessing forest health, providing technical assistance, and creating long-term management plans. Bill Pickens, a conifer silviculturist for the North Carolina Forest Service, has worked with longleaf for over 20 years. He says state forest services, like in North Carolina, seek funding from the federal government to put on workshops once or twice a year to educate private and state foresters on longleaf management.
Development is the main threat to longleaf pines, Pickens said, adding that private landowners sell land without realizing longleaf grows there, and a lot of public land with longleaf isn’t being maintained properly.
“We want to prioritize management decisions based on landowners’ objectives,” Pickens said. While there are no state-wide policies about longleaf restoration, the state Forest Service “encourages our rangers and our foresters to help.”
The timber industry no longer actively logs for longleaf, but landowners who have longleaf pines must decide whether to grow it for conservation, or cut it to sell. The tree’s economic value is hard to ignore, Moore said — even young trees can be sold for a higher price than loblolly or slash pine, two popular alternatives grown for logging.
Conservation groups like The Nature Conservancy advocate for selective logging of trees, which is a more sustainable alternative to clear cutting. “You can still make money on longleaf through selective logging,” Moore said. “You can grow it and cut enough of it to pay your property taxes, or the cost of maintaining it, without ruining the integrity of the forest.”
There’s a major barrier standing in the way of this restoration: convincing private landowners to learn how to set controlled, or prescribed, burns. Fire clears the understory and keeps invasive species at bay, said Denhof, the Longleaf Alliance president. She said many landowners lack the knowledge or resources to burn safely, so they choose not to do it.
“A lot of your private landowners are not burning like they need to,” she said. And, without prescribed fires, she added, “biodiversity actually goes down dramatically.”
Part of the problem is a lack of access to “burn bosses,” a certified official who can safely set prescribed burns and monitor equipment, coordinate burn crews, and handle permits. The Longleaf Alliance helps connect landowners with certified burners, works to find them funds through conservation nonprofits or federal grants, and maintains active lists of forest contractors and nurseries to help with maintenance. “We now include quite a bit more of on the ground restoration work with landowners,” Denhof said.
The increased interest in longleaf habitat restoration over the past several decades makes Moore hopeful. “It’s basically down to the people, at this point,” she said. “In conjunction with the other programs we have, it’s down to citizens to help bring back the populations we destroyed.”
Once a tree of the past, she said she now considers longleaf the tree of the future. “The level of interest these days is incredibly heartening,” she added. “After so many years of fighting, I now have tremendous hope.”
Riley Davis is a freelance journalist and graduate student currently completing her M.A. in science journalism at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.