Restoring Longleaf Pine on Agricultural Land Benefits Wildlife

Restoring longleaf pine savannas of the southeastern United States benefits some of the world’s most diverse plant communities and wildlife species. When forests are managed with the traditionally open canopy structure, a savanna-like environment is created allowing sunlight to stream to the forest floor where grasses and herbs grow for wildlife to live and graze. Unfortunately, a long history of over-exploitation including farming, logging, and fire exclusion over the past century have reduced this once-widespread utopia to only 3-4 percent of its natural range.

mature longleaf forest

A mature longleaf pine forest with diverse understory of grasses, legumes, and forages that are ideal for wildlife habitat. Photo by Gary Burger

Prior to development and the conversion of forested land to other land uses, the southeast was home to approximately 90 million acres of longleaf pine habitat spanning from east Texas to north Florida all the way to Virginia. These forests provide habitat for a suite of rare, at-risk, and endangered species such as northern bobwhite quail, red-cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoises, pinewoods tree frogs, pine and prairie warblers, as well as game species. Longleaf forests also contribute to a healthy environment by providing clean air and water sources, creating buffers from wildfire, and mitigating damage from hurricanes.

Bobwhite quail. Photo by leshoward via Flickr Creative Commons

The dramatic loss of longleaf pine to approximately 3 million acres has led to an abrupt call to action to save this important ecosystem. These forests contain some of the most important, biodiverse, and natural areas for plants and wildlife in the United States.

The National Wildlife Federation has been fortunate to work alongside many other organizations and our affiliates to develop and implement strategies to bring back this iconic forest to the south. The National Wildlife Federation and Alabama Wildlife Federation work together with private landowners each year to plant and restore longleaf pine across its historic range in Alabama, funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Longleaf Stewardship Fund. Since 2007, over 13,000 acres of longleaf have been restored on private lands from this collaboration.

In addition to restoring habitat, the National Wildlife Federation is focused on addressing the dangers of a changing climate. Each year, greenhouse gas emissions continue to pollute and create long lasting changes to our climate while also threatening the environment, wildlife, and Americans’ health.

llp tree trunk

A longleaf pine tree amidst the forest. Photo by Ross Anderson

However, there is good news: planting trees can help mitigate the negative effects of carbon emissions. Through photosynthesis, trees absorb carbon dioxide and other pollutants in the atmosphere, and then store the carbon and release oxygen back into the environment.

U.S. forests serve as a carbon “sink”, currently offsetting 10 to 20% of the country’s emissions from burning fossil fuels each year, according the U.S. Forest Service. Studies also indicate that the highest potential for carbon sequestration on agricultural land is afforestation (the establishment of forest on land that has been without forest for a long period of time).

In addition to restoring forested land back to longleaf pine, the National Wildlife Federation remains supportive of efforts to convert agricultural land that is no longer productive or prone to erosion back to longleaf pine forests. Restoring longleaf on past agricultural fields can lead to clear and sizable gains for increased carbon sequestration rates below and above-ground. Furthermore, many reforestation practices that enhance carbon sequestration can achieve other environmental benefits such as increasing soil health and reducing erosion, improving water quality and quantity, and providing wildlife habitat.

Longleaf pine plantings on a landowner’s south Georgia property. Photo by Robert Abernathy

From the commitment and help of many partners and organizations, longleaf pine is making a first-time comeback as acreage has extended to approximately 4.7 million acres, which is a first known increase since the 1990s. Partners, including the National Wildlife Federation and its affiliates, have played a significant role in halting the decline of longleaf pine. Healthy forests, and especially forests planted on agricultural fields, can sequester carbon while also providing ideal wildlife habitat, help with clean air and water sources, provide renewable and sustainable source of timber, and create recreational activities for generations to come.

The National Wildlife Federation appreciates the support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, OhmConnect, and other organizations for their support of our longleaf restoration program.

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