Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) once dominated the southern parts of North America. At one time the pinelands covered over 90 million acres of the Southern landscape; since settlement, the longleaf pine population has suffered a 98% decrease. Unbeknownst to many people, longleaf once dominated the slopes of mountains in NW Georgia and NE Alabama, forming a habitat type known as the Mountain Longleaf ecosystem.
The disappearance of Longleaf Pine is profound in itself, but it is even more important when viewed in context of the ecosystem it supports. As the numbers of longleaf stands have dwindled, so have the populations of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and the fox squirrel, both of which thrive in the longleaf ecosystem. Flora including low-bush blueberry, blackjack oak, pale hickory, and sparkleberry are associated with longleaf pines, along with countless other plant species.
The longleaf has seen two major threats leading to its disappearance. First, many acres of mountain longleaf stands have been converted to Loblolly Pine plantations. Loblolly is more susceptible to fire damage, diseases, and pests indigenous to the mountain area.
The second major threat to the longleaf has been fire suppression. For generations, the public has been taught to put out all forest fires as quickly as possible, and that forest fires do nothing but destroy all flora and fauna (the Smokey the Bear campaign). This view, while widely held, is incorrect, and the Longleaf Pine actually thrives on occasional surface fires that bring many benefits to the ecosystem.
With the practice of fire suppression, fire intolerant trees have been allowed to grow out of control in many woodland areas. Not only does this ironically create a greater risk of fire in the future, but it also keeps longleaf seedlings, grasses, and certain other indigenous plant life from growing.
Fire is a requisite for longleaf ecosystems. Rather than the destructive force most people view it as, fire is what these and many other plants thrive on in the long-term. Fires caused by lightning strikes contributed to the dominance of the longleaf before humans inhabited the area; Native Americans and early European colonists also contributed to the health of the species by conducting burns in many areas.
The challenge of restoring the longleaf ecosystem lies in proper fire management. Prescribed burns are required to help the plants thrive, especially in their infancy. Without proper fire control, the longleaf ecosystem type is threatened, as it is out-competed by other plant species that have invaded the natural stands in the post-settlement era. Other plants and animals also respond positively to the relatively open conditions created by burning.