Disappearing Landscapes - Longleaf Pine

Change Over Time

'In "pine barrens" most of the day. Low, level, sandy tracts; the pines wide apart; the sunny spaces between full of beautiful abounding grasses, Liatris, long, wand-like Solidago, saw palmettos, etc., covering the ground in garden style. Here I sauntered in delightful freedom, meeting none of the cat-clawed vines, or shrubs, of the alluvial bottoms.' 

-- John Muir

Around 1500, the longleaf pine forest dominated as much as 90 million acres (360,000 km²). Its range in the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains was defined by the flat landscape, prone to frequent widespread fire. The fire regime of Longleaf Pine communities in more rugged landscapes is less well understood, but fire has played a role in their maintenance. Today, only about 3% remains of its historic range. A major cause of the decline of longleaf pine habitat has been the removal of the necessary fire that allows Longleaf to thrive and reproduce.

As settlers moved into the Southeastern Plains, areas with productive soils were cleared for agriculture. Other areas with sandy, less fertile soils were left in trees and grazed as open range. During the most of the 1800s longleaf pine trees were used for turpentine production. The sides of the trees were scarred with sharp tools, so the resin ran into containers, then collected and distilled for a wide variety of uses. By the 1880s railroads had been built into much of the region, and pine trees close to the railroads had been cut for lumber. By 1930 nearly all the longleaf pine trees on the entire Coastal Plain, from Virginia to Texas had been cut. Cut over lands were abandoned as lumber companies moved on to uncut areas. In many areas intense wildfires burned the logging slash left on these cut over and abandoned lands.

When these lands were reforested, usually loblolly pine or slash pine was planted. These trees were much easier to grow commercially and were better suited to the short rotation pine plantations that supported the growing paper industry in the region. Controlling wildfire became more important as the industrial forest lands on the coastal plain. Common management practices (e.g., ‘double chopping’ and ‘root raking’) on pine plantations led to the decline of wiregrass which was considered a troublesome competitor.

Prognosis for the Future

 

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