Longleaf Pine Cone - Pinus palustris

Terminal bud from a young Longleaf Pine

        Before European settlers arrived, longleaf pine forests covered 92 million acres of the Southeastern United States from southern Virginia to Florida, and as far west as Texas. Only about 4% of its historic range remains today due to clearing the forest for development and agriculture. This massive clearing of the longleaf pine forests has left the remaining pockets heavily fragmented, which has further caused many species to become federally protected such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, Eastern indigo snake, and the gopher tortoise. 
        For thousands of years, the longleaf pine forests have been dependent on natural fire to help revitalize the ecosystem. Pine needles, which cover the forest floor create dense mats that will keep the longleaf pine seeds from germinating since they need bare mineral soil that fire helps create. Fire also keeps a thick understory from forming, and invasive species in check, which can shade out longleaf pine seedlings. When fire isn't a regular occurrence in these habitats, broad-leaved trees such as oaks and hickories will begin to dominant and alter the entire ecosystem. Due to the heavy fragmentation, fire is no longer able to spread through vast portions of the forest.
        Fortunately there are a group of people working hard to restore this once dominant habitat. Georgia Department of Natural Resources has teamed up with The Longleaf Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, and many others to help make longleaf pine forests a healthy environment for wildlife and people alike. They're restoring these forests by the use for prescribed fire. Near Brunswick, Georgia I met with Ian Kottke, who was working for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources on the fire crew. Kottke explains that "during the cooler winter months and sometimes into spring is when the groups band together to safely and effectively burn  as many acres of Longleaf Pine forest as possible." This is a delicate process due to the fragmentation, which means working in close proximity to peoples homes and businesses. "Much care is needed to reach our goals and meet our objectives while keeping everyone safe and happy," Kottke explains. By the 1990's, only 2.8 million acres remained of once 92 million acres of longleaf pine forests. "Thanks to those involved in restoration efforts, that number has increased to 3.2 million acres." Despite the threats of logging and development, Kottke believes we will continue to see that number to increase over the years.