“Here’s to the land of the long leaf pine,
The summertime land where the sun doth shine,
Where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great,
Here’s to “Down Home,” the Old North State!”
-North Carolina State Toast
The longleaf pine is North Carolina’s state tree not only because it is a beautiful tree, but because it is a productive tree. Hundreds of years ago, longleaf forests stretched from southwest Virginia down to eastern Texas, covering most of the Southern coastal plain. The vertical landscape was dominated by a singular species of tall, majestic tree: the longleaf pine. Explorers saw, “a vast forest of the most stately pine trees that can be imagined, planted by nature at a moderate distance…enameled with a variety of flowering shrubs.”[i]
Because their widely spaced trunks ensure large openings between foliage crowns, longleaf forests create a park-like habitat for grasses and shrubs on the sunlit floor. In this way, the forest is simultaneously a grassland, with a diverse and well-developed ground layer. In fact, the longleaf pine ecosystem is exceptionally rich—its biodiversity measures exceed all other environments in the temperate Western Hemisphere.[ii] Longleaf pine forests set the stage for many endemic organisms to emerge, such as venus fly traps and the tree-nesting (and endangered) red cockaded woodpecker. The longleaf is a keystone species which created landscapes remarkably resilient, rich and unique.
Historically, the longleaf forests offered straight, dense, rot-resistant lumber, medicines, resin and turpentine, and cattle grazing ground. The ready supply of timber and water-resistant resin “tar” from pines meant that by the 1770s, ship-building and naval stores were North Carolina’s foremost industry[iii] – longleafs are the primary material source of the “tar” in “tar heels”! Over time, most longleaf pine forests were overexploited, and the wildfires which the ecosystems depend upon for renewal were suppressed. Today the few remaining longleaf pine ecosystems exist mostly in fragmented, marginal places.[iv]
Image: Longleaf Pine Savannah, Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR, USA (Lea)
The dramatic decline of longleafs has generated many calls for preservation and restoration in recent decades. But because most of the forested land in the US South is privately owned, longleaf issues will need to be addressed, at least in large part, through private forest management. Creating effective land-use policies to promote longleaf pines on private lands can be difficult; however, there are a variety of management strategies which offer profitable incentives for landowners to plant longleaf. By advocating for effective longleaf policies and by educating landowners on the economic benefits of longleaf forestry, regional planners can aid the restoration of longleaf in the US South.[v]
The Longleaf Alliance, a nongovernmental organization which promotes longleaf ecosystems, published a professional report, “The Economics of Longleaf Pine Management,” which provides a useful overview of the many methods by which the tree can prove profitable for landowners. The longleaf timber, which is premium wood quality in its own right, is frequently straight enough to be used as telephone poles—a high-value and reliably demanded product.[vi]
Another opportunity for landowners to profit lies in pinestraw raking. Pinestraw is a valuable landscaping mulch. When performed at regular intervals, pinestraw raking offers opportunities for additional income streams while trees mature. Additionally, there are other real and potential opportunities which may make longleafs financially viable, including wildlife/hunting leases, mitigation payments, and access to aesthetic value and recreational opportunities.[vii]
Another compelling element of longleafs is their capacity to store carbon. Longleaf pines are excellent carbon sinks, and future markets for carbon trading (whereby landowners would be paid for growing longleaf pines in order to sequester atmospheric carbon) could prove to be a profitable use of private land. Thus, longleafs offer opportunities for both environmental management and economic benefit.
Increasingly, research is being done into how silvopastoral methods may offer new profitable techniques for landowners to generate regular income streams. Silvopasture is an agroforestry technology that combines trees and pasture with cattle operations.[viii] Results from various studies suggest that silvopasture may offer a powerful strategy for promoting longleaf pines by enabling landowners to incorporate longleafs into profitable silvopasture enterprises.
Cattle grazing in silvopasture. Image: United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Another important financial consideration is the element of risk. As compared to other trees, longleafs are particularly resistant to disease, pests, and wind damage. The Longleaf Alliance notes that after Hurricane Katrina, side-by-side stands of longleaf, loblolly, and slash pines showed significantly different survival rates. 64% of longleafs remained safe from snapping or uprooting, while loblollies only had a 16.3% survival rate.[ix]
Working with private landowners to promote longleaf may prove to be a worthwhile strategy for regional planners. Longleafs offer a diverse array of economic incentives, but many landowners may be unaware of the opportunities the longleaf represents, and may be unfamiliar with longleaf management practices. Any serious planning efforts to promote longleaf restoration must include policies and programs designed for private landowners operating on a for-profit basis.
Today there are a growing number of partnerships between private landowners, NGOs, and governmental bodies to promote environmental and economic sustainability via longleaf management. Longleafs offer viable strategies for simultaneously promoting conservation, economic growth, and climate adaptation. The longleaf was the tree the built the South. Now, the South is rebuilding the longleaf.
Featured photo: Leo Miranda, USFWS on Flickr.
About the Author: Brian Stark Godfrey is a Chapel Hill resident and a member of the Town’s Board of Adjustment. He is currently a Master’s Candidate at UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning. In his free time, he enjoys gardening, exercise, and spending time with his wife, Becky.
[i] The Longleaf Alliance. 2011. “The Economics of Longleaf Pine Management: A Road to Making Dollars and Sense.” https://www.longleafalliance.org/what-we-do/education/publications/documents/economics/longleaf.pdf.
[ii] Peet, Robert K., and Dorothy J. Allard. 1993. “Longleaf Pine Vegetation of the Southern Atlantic and Eastern Gulf Coast Regions: A Preliminary Classification.” Proceedings of the Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference 18.
[iv] Alavalapati, Janaki R.R., George A. Stainback, and Douglas R. Carter. 2002. “Restoration of the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem on Private Lands in the US South: An Ecological Economic Analysis.” Ecological Economics 40 (3): 411–19. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800902000125.
[v] Alavalapati, Janaki R.R., George A. Stainback, and Douglas R. Carter. 2002. “Restoration of the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem on Private Lands in the US South: An Ecological Economic Analysis.” Ecological Economics 40 (3): 411–19. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800902000125.
[vi] The Longleaf Alliance. 2011. “The Economics of Longleaf Pine Management: A Road to Making Dollars and Sense.” https://www.longleafalliance.org/what-we-do/education/publications/documents/economics/longleaf.pdf.
[vii] The Longleaf Alliance. 2011. “The Economics of Longleaf Pine Management: A Road to Making Dollars and Sense.” https://www.longleafalliance.org/what-we-do/education/publications/documents/economics/longleaf.pdf.
[viii] Shrestha, Ram K., Janaki R.R. Alavalapati, and Roberst S. Kalmbacher. 2003. “Exploring the Potential for Silvopasture Adoption in South-Central Florida: An Application of SWOT-AHP Method.” Agricultural Systems 81 (3): 185–99. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X03001963.
[ix] The Longleaf Alliance. 2011. “The Economics of Longleaf Pine Management: A Road to Making Dollars and Sense.” https://www.longleafalliance.org/what-we-do/education/publications/documents/economics/longleaf.pdf.