Longleaf pine forests of the southeastern United States are extraordinarily diverse and found across numerous habitats influenced by fire. Beneath the forests’ characteristic open canopy lies one of the most plant-rich ecosystems in the temperate zone, full of species found nowhere else in the world. Longleaf pine was once the largest forest ecosystem in North America, but today exists on less than five percent of its historic range.
Around 38 percent of current longleaf pine stands are found on public lands like National Forests. Each year, the NFF works with the U.S. Forest Service and The Longleaf Alliance to increase this amount and return the important native pine to its former range on southern National Forests. Since 2011, we’ve planted more than 4.2 million longleaf pine seedlings.
In Mississippi, around 40 percent of longleaf habitat is found on public lands. Since 2019, the NFF has partnered with The Longleaf Alliance to expand the species’ range here, planting over a million seedlings on Mississippi National Forests.
Why Longleaf Pine?
The longleaf pine ecosystem once stretched across 90 million acres, from Virginia to Texas. The pine’s decline began when European settlers cleared land for agriculture, which led to centuries of extraction, conversion, and fire suppression. Fire exclusion further pushed longleaf out, since frequent, mild fire is a critical component of the ecosystem. For thousands of years, Indigenous Americans managed forests with fire to maintain the land for agriculture, habitat for game species, and for many other purposes.
Longleaf pine is highly resistant to fire, which sustains the ecosystem’s open canopy and botanically-rich understory of herbs and grasses. Without fire, hardwoods and fire-intolerant pines shade and close the canopy, inhibiting the growth of longleaf and its associated understory species. Thanks to this higher tolerance to fire and other disturbances – including insects, disease, and high-intensity wind – and a long lifespan, the pine is thought to have long-term carbon benefits.
Longleaf pine makes up one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in North America.
Remaining fragmented forests are small but mighty. The longleaf pine ecosystem is one of the most biologically diverse in North America, with an understory that can hold up to 40 plant species per square yard. This, along with the ecosystem’s diverse forest structure and variability, enables it to provide a thriving home for wildlife, including more than 68 bird species and around 60 percent of the region’s reptiles and amphibians. Additionally, longleaf provides habitat for approximately 900 endemic species and 29 federally listed species.
Planting Longleaf Pine on Mississippi National Forests
Mississippi’s six National Forests span 1.2 million acres of public land across the state. Diverse forests range from the piney woods of the Gulf Coastal Plain, to the upland hardwoods in the north, and forested wetlands of the Mississippi River Delta, among other forest types. One of the forests’ main priorities is restoring native ecological systems, and our work here does just that.
Over the past few years, we have planted 1.1 million seedlings with the U.S. Forest Service and The Longleaf Alliance, helping to restore nearly 2,000 acres of native habitat across DeSoto, Bienville, and Homochitto National Forests.
As these seedlings grow, they will help restore native, biologically diverse habitat, benefiting wildlife, such as the Louisiana black bear and wild turkey, and federally listed species, such as the dusky gopher frog, gopher tortoise (listed in its western range), red-cockaded wood pecker, and black pine snake.
Planting longleaf also has powerful carbon benefits, thanks to its resistance and 250—450 year lifespan. Additionally, like all of our projects on National Forests, planting on Mississippi National Forests will improve the experiences of future forest visitors and recreationists on these public lands.
The above is an abridged version of a report submitted to Animal Keepers’ Forum magazine in fulfillment of the NFF’s 2019 American Association of Zookeeper’s Trees for You and Me grant award. The award supported longleaf pine restoration in 2020.