I have a few decorative items on my desk at work, and some of those are longleaf pine cones. Even though I only learned of the rare longleaf pine forest – and the large pine cones that fall in them each year – a few years ago, it was love at first sight.
Longleaf pine forests once covered the coastal landscape of the Southeast, and they’re home to nearly 600 plant and animal species.
But over the past two centuries, development, timbering and fire suppression reduced the longleaf’s range by almost 97 percent. And many groups, including USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), are working to save and restore this landscape. According to the America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative, longleaf forests have increased from about 3 million acres to about 4.4 million acres in recent years, reversing a century-long decline across the region.
Next week, NRCS joins fellow partners in this initiative to mark the five-year anniversary of creation of the Range-wide Conservation Plan for Longleaf Pine, which has helped lead to tremendous success in restoration.
The first longleaf pine forest I visited was in Purvis, Miss., where I learned about the pitcher plant, a carnivorous plant that thrives in wet areas, called pitcher plant bogs. Talk about a pretty sight, especially when boasting their rich yellow or red colors.
Part of what makes longleaf pine forests special are the interesting critters that call them home. The gopher tortoise is the forests’ most famous species. A mighty digger, this keystone species burrows deep below the forest and even shares its underground home with about 300 species.
Forests are also home to the red-cockaded woodpecker, flatwoods salamander and dusky gopher frog.
So, why do pitcher plants and gopher tortoises thrive in longleaf pine forests? Would have you ever guessed fire as one reason?
Longleaf pine trees are heavily resistant to fire, so while the fire may kill competitive shrubs and trees, the longleaf survives and thrives. Pitcher plants can start anew on a recently cleaned forest floor. Meanwhile, young plants that sprout after a fire are tasty meals for gopher tortoises.
NRCS helps owners and managers of private land create, restore and maintain these forests, including the planting of the trees and managing through prescribed burning.
These conservation practices are some of those offered through NRCS’ Longleaf Pine Initiative, one of the agency’s conservation efforts working to ensure more longleaf forests continue to grow.
Plus, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, a new program through the 2014 Farm Bill, has named the longleaf pine range in the Southeast one of the nation’s eight critical conservation areas, where NRCS is working with partners on targeted conservation projects.
I’m proud of the efforts to restore and protect longleaf pine forests and hopeful that more and more of these healthy forests will be around for future generations.