For decades, Reese Thompson didn’t fully appreciate the ground beneath his feet. As a sixth-generation tree farmer, he valued his thousands of acres in Wheeler County, Georgia, mostly for its output—the saw timber, chip-n-saw, and pulpwood provided by the fast-growing slash pines on his land. But all that changed about 13 years ago when a botanist friend of his knelt amid an untouched stand of longleaf pines on Thompson’s farm and quickly counted off 29 plant species within a square yard.
“I’d been walking this land all my life and didn’t really realize what the longleaf pine ecosystem contained,” says Thompson in his convivial southern drawl. “I guess you could say I had a Damascus Road experience.”
Starting with his own timber farm, Thompson was soon on a mission to restore and preserve the Southeast’s longleaf pine forests. He’s not alone. Since 2007, with its 30-plus members, a public–private effort called America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative has been trying to save these struggling, long-needled forests, which once covered an estimated 141,000 square miles between Virginia and Texas. As the trees disappeared for lumber and turpentine, so too did plants, animals, and insects. By the 1980s only 5,300 square miles of longleaf pine forest remained, stranded as islands within a sea of altered landscapes. Just two square miles of that was virgin forest. It was as if the Southeast had lost its Amazon.
That’s not an exaggeration. At its healthiest, longleaf habitat is home to 900 species and as biologically dense and diverse as a tropical rain forest. Wild turkey, bobwhite quail, and deer roam these woods, but 29 of their longleaf neighbors are currently either threatened or endangered, among them the red-cockaded woodpecker, a keystone species. The survival of at least 27 vertebrates depends on this woodpecker, which carves out tree cavities in which numerous other birds and small mammals nest. The entire menagerie, however, relies on the pines themselves, which are more resistant to drought, wind, bugs, and fire than other southern pines.
To date, the longleaf project has planted a million new acres of pine, with the goal of adding another 3.6 million acres by 2025. That would bring longleaf acreage to just below 10 percent of its original glory. But restoring an ecosystem that evolved over millions of years is tough, especially with the constraints of rapid development, limited funding and capacity, and climate change.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, by 2060 the South will have lost up to 67,000 square miles of forests to urban development. Forests across the region are being converted into slash and loblolly pine plantations, row crops, and residential and commercial real estate. Such deforestation is the largest threat to longleaf pines, says Hunter Bowman, a conservation coordinator for the Nature Conservancy. “We have got to protect mature longleaf pine forests in the few places we still find them,” he says.
These remaining ecosystems are scattered across nine states in which the longleaf initiative has identified areas where the pines are most likely to thrive. Many of those so-called hot spots exist on federal lands such as military bases, national forests, and national wildlife areas. For private property, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Longleaf Stewardship Fund doles out millions each year to spur restoration projects and provide technical assistance to landowners like Thompson.
This year, 24 projects will receive a total of $5.5 million to establish and improve longleaf pine forests. The largest project is a partnership between Florida’s Osceola National Forest and the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, which is on the Georgia–Florida border. Here, a team will plant longleaf seedlings on 2,574 previously clear-cut acres. After a year, the conservationists will treat the area with either prescribed fire or herbicides to prevent other vegetation from competing with the fire-resistant saplings for sunlight, water, and nutrients. Such interventions are necessary every two to three years.
“In the longleaf pine ecosystem, the majority of the diversity is from your knees down,” says David Printiss, the Nature Conservancy’s North Florida program manager. He’s referring to the grasses and underbrush that fuel the wildfires that help drive the ecosystem. “Fire,” Printiss says, “is just as natural and common as rain in the Southeast.”
Wildfires don’t occur as frequently or extensively as the longleaf ecosystem needs—a problem that comes down to a lack of manpower and training in prescribed burns. Without regular fires, the forest canopy thickens as less fire-resistant trees grow bigger, restricting the amount of sunlight that would typically reach the ground. As they compete with other trees and extra undergrowth, the longleafs themselves weaken and become susceptible to disease and harmful insects. Eventually the grasses, legumes, and wildflowers that need light and space die out, and the smothered forest becomes an undesirable home for species like the red-cockaded woodpecker, gopher tortoise, and eastern indigo snake.
The eastern indigo snake is an apex predator whose very existence speaks to the health of a longleaf ecosystem. These serpents feed on small reptiles, birds, and other snakes, and they winter in burrows dug by gopher tortoises. For the eastern indigo to survive, the food web in its habitat needs most of its strands intact.
Alabama and Florida lost their eastern indigos long ago, but both states are welcoming these iridescent reptiles back as they work to restore their longleafs. In the spring, conservationists reintroduced 12 eastern indigos to the Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve in northern Florida. Printiss says the snake’s return marks the culmination of a 35-year effort to turn a veritable wasteland into a true longleaf pine forest.
In addition to deforestation, another big concern is where these pines will grow well in the future. A recent study in Science Advances shows that southern forests are already on the move due to climate change. The research suggests that hardwoods are shifting westward as they seek water, and pines are heading north for cooler temperatures.
Coauthor Kevin Potter, a North Carolina State University professor of forestry who specializes in population genetics, says that seeds once planted in his state may eventually be better suited for Virginia. The key, adds Potter, is to encourage the tree’s genetic diversity across its range. That would help to make the population more resilient to the variations in temperature and precipitation that come with climate change.
Back on Reese Thompson's Georgia farm, he's also trying to think generations into the future. The first step is replacing his slash pines with longleafs, managing some of his stands for timber while saving others for conservation. The next step, he says, is education—prescribed fire education that he’s helping to promote through the nonprofit Longleaf Alliance. Thompson has even dreamed up Burner Bob, a bobwhite quail character to challenge Smokey Bear's no-fire narrative. Burner Bob is “a cool dude with a hot message,” he says.
When Thompson looks out on his family’s farm today, he sees both its monetary and its biological value. “At the end of my life, I could clear-cut all of the timber—some of it 100-plus years old—sell the land, and have CDs in the bank, of which I have absolutely none now,” he says. “Or I could leave something that’s truly unique.”