Longleaf pines once covered 92 million acres of sand dunes, savannas, and foothills from southeastern Virginia to eastern Texas: “a continuous, measureless forest, an ocean of trees,” German traveler Johann David Schoepf wrote in the 1780s. Today, less than three million acres of longleaf forest remain, mostly fragmented into isolated stands near the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. The former range of this long-needled, giant-coned species is now dominated by loblolly and slash pines—and, of course, by civilization.
The decline of the longleaf pine is a complex story, well and thoroughly told by journalist Lawrence Earley. Human exploitation of the longleaf forest began in the 18th century, when settlers loosed millions of grazing cattle and foraging hogs beneath the canopy. Later in the century, the tar industry rose in the Southeast to satisfy worldwide demand for naval stores; it was followed in the early 19th century by the rapid expansion of the turpentine industry. Turpentine “chippers,” Earley writes in one of his charming detours, hacked into the trees to draw out the resin, while crews of “dippers” collected the gum for the distillers—“outlaw work carried on by outlaws,” in the words of one worker. Though these practices didn’t always kill the trees, “cutting into a living tree with an ax . . . was not conducive to its health,” Earley writes. Slapdash chipping and dipping exhausted hundreds of thousands of acres of longleaf forest each year.
Next came the "cut and run" era: beginning around 1875, impatient clearcutting by the timber industry took a devastating toll, leaving behind fields too barren to regenerate. The timber companies operated as itinerant camps, pressing men into conditions almost as bad as slavery, yet at the same time foreshadowing the company mill towns soon to come. (When William Safire looked for the sources of this familiar campaign expression--"we're not going to cut and run"--he neglected this one.)
What followed in its wake were the now-familiar loblolly and slash pine, easier to grow yet in the end not as useful a wood. Too late did people realize the difference in the marketplace, for example, between heart pine floors made out of longleaf and their those cut from their weaker substitutes. Earley writes of a trip down a Florida river with George Goodwin, a latter-day heart pine floor manufacturer who claims as his best material the longleaf logs that slipped off the rafts 100 years ago in the days of abundant harvest.
The loss of sinkers, or "deadheads," as they were called, was common from rafts, with estimates running from 25 to 30 percent of the total. With great decay-resistant heartwood centers, the trees could stay incorruptible for hundreds of years at the bottom of the river.
"This stuff is absolutely perfect," Goodwin says. "If I had my choice between a beautiful board made from a beam and a beautiful board from a river log, I'd take the river log every time."
Earley is measured and diplomatic in his criticism of the federal land management policy that in the twentieth century did the most harm to the longleaf: the failure to perform controlled burns, the way the Native Americans were careful to do. Smokey Bear's advice might have been good for the white pine region of the northeast--which is what Earley stresses--but it seems that it hung on for far too long in the longleaf region.
Finally what had once been obvious became widely understood again: fire is a crucial element of the longleaf forest ecosystem, keeping the underbrush down so that seeds can germinate and dependent species can thrive.
We next entered a vast forest of the most stately Pine trees that can be imagined, planted by nature, at a moderate distance, on a level, grassy plain, enamelled with a variety of flowering shrubs, viz. Viola, Ruella infundibuliforma, Amaryllis atamasco, Mimosa sensitiva, Mimosa intsia and many others new to me. . . .
William Bartram, Travels (1791)
In a properly managed longleaf forest, Earley points out, the species diversity rivals that of the rain forest:
In the early 1980s Joan Walker, then a graduate student at the University of North Carolina working with Robert Peet, began to study the species diversity in a number of longleaf pine savannas in the Green Swamp, a 15,552-acre preserve in southeastern North Carolina owned by The Nature Conservancy. She counted the species at scales ranging from the very small to the very large. In her one-square-meter plots, she found an average of thirty-five species, with a high of more than forty. Longleaf pine seedlings grew next to numerous grass species and joined orchids, lilies, asters, carnivorous plants, and sedges.
These counts were off the charts, "a level of small-scale species diversity higher than any previously reported for North America and roughly equivalent to the highest values reported in world literature," as she and Peet announced in 1983.
This week it was announced that The Nature Conservancy is about to buy another 5,900 acres of longleaf pineland in southeastern North Carolina. Alan Weakley of the UNC Herbarium "thinks this acreage could be the most naturally significant long-leaf pine ecosystem in the Atlantic coastal plain between Virginia and Florida." It is home to three endangered species plus the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, whose symbiotic relationship with the longleaf pine environment (it is the only woodpecker to make its home in living trees) is a wonder to comprehend.
"We will never be able to experience an open, parklike forest stretching for hundreds of miles, as Bartram did, nor will we ever be bored [as some of the first Europeans were] by the endless monotony of a landscape of pines," Earley concludes. But happily, all is not lost.