Longleaf Comeback A New Future for Region's Distinctive Tree?
This is reprinted with permission from The Charlotte Observer.
By Jack Betts
In The Charlotte Observer
I t must have been a sight to see when the first European explorers stepped ashore and wandered inland: more than 60 million acres of the Southeast where the longleaf pine was the dominant tree, and 30 million more mixed with hardwoods and other species.
The Spanish would have seen it in the 1500s and could have marched under its towering canopy from the Lake Okeechobee region of Florida through the Carolinas to the James River region of what is now Virginia and as far west as southeastern Texas.
The span of these marvelous pines, writes author and photographer Lawrence Earley in his 2004 book "Looking for Longleaf: The Rise and Fall of an American Forest," was interrupted only by the sprawling floodplain of the Mississippi.
This noble tree was prized by these newcomers for many reasons. Its straight growth and resistance to decay made it superb for the spars of sailing ships. Its strong beams made it especially suitable for building.
Longleaf even provided medicine.
But perhaps most of all - some might say worst of all - was that it was well suited to the production of naval stores: pitch, tar, turpentine and rosin that were needed the world over to help waterproof ships, preserve rigging, make lubricants and keep trade flowing. Turpentine was used to improve candlelight and as a medicine to treat the pain of abscessed teeth, bronchitis, rheumatism, lumbago and sciatica, Earley writes.
It made some people rich. In the 19th century, it made North Carolina the leading producer of naval stores and contributed to its nickname: the Tar Heel State.
And that was a principal factor in the decline of the longleaf forests that once marked the Southeast. Turpentining, as it was called, didn't have to kill the longleaf trees, but wasteful practices of extracting the gum accounted for the loss of as much as three-fourths of a stand, one report noted.
And logging took its toll as forest management practices changed, favoring less-valuable but faster-growing species of pine to provide paper products such as newsprint. When the majority of longleafs were cut and gone, the flow of wealth that the longleaf once brought dried up.
Now we're left with vestiges of the old longleaf forest -- and scientists at N.C. State University and other institutions tell us how valuable it is and how much more useful it could become. The "scattered old-growth remnants still comprise .... one of the biologically richest habitats in North America," a new report says, with plant and animal species that are found nowhere else.
Only Vestiges Left
Of the original 90 million acres of forest where the longleaf thrived, just 3 percent is left - about 3.4 million acres, some of it in North Carolina.
The plans by the National Wildlife Federation and two other groups were outlined a few weeks ago. A restoration of the longleaf forest could provide revenue for farmers, especially African Americans who own land in the Black Belt counties of the Southeast; better habitat for wildlife; recreational opportunities for hunters; income from pine needle raking, and as a growing source for carbon sequestration.
The ability of the longleaf to absorb carbon - and to retain it even after a tree dies and falls - is significant. Longleaf pines are much denser than other pines. Their slow rate of decay means that carbon retention would be superior at a time when reducing the presence of carbon in the atmosphere is a major goal of efforts to fight global warming.
Longleaf pines take longer to grow than other commercial pines - they can survive 450 years and more. They are especially resistant to fire, the federation notes in its report, "Standing Tall: How Restoring Longleaf Pine Can Help Prepare the Southeast for Global Warming."
They not only tolerate fire but are dependent upon it, unlike other tree species. Fires near Myrtle Beach last year are instructive.
They consumed 30 square miles of property. But, as the report said, "Areas dominated by longleaf pine were largely undamaged and even rejuvenated by fire."
In fact, with global warming threatening Southeastern forests, longleaf pines are especially well suited to restoration because of their resilience to climate extremes of high temperatures - expected to grow as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the 2080s - as well as drought and excessive wet.
Restoring the Forest
These are among the reasons a coalition of groups hopes to expand the remnant forest to 8 million acres within 15 years. It would boost the Southeastern economy, provide income for residents of poverty-stricken areas and help retard the growth of carbon emissions that worsen global warming.
But it needs help - including stronger incentives from state and federal governments for longleaf pine restoration that compensate property owners for committing to long-term growth of the longleaf.
The prospect of a renewed longleaf pine forest with its parklike beauty and its carpet of pine needles and wiregrass stirs the imagination in the same ways coastal efforts to restore the oyster population have fostered.
We have lost some valuable pieces of our culture and our natural history, so it's more than gratifying to know that scientists and conservationists are working on a way to restore what once was so abundant - and so vital to this old state's growth.
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