Forests of longleaf pines have dwindled from 90 million acres across much of the Southeast to just 3 million acres today. But private landowners in Alabama and eight other states are working to restore this ecosystem.
The three-year-old Longleaf Pine Initiative is helping to provide technical and financial assistance to private landowners in Alabama and across the region to improve the sustainability and profitability of longleaf ecosystems.
States participating in the initiative hope longleaf’s many advantages will result in more acreage being planted. Longleaf’s superior traits include resistance to drought, fusiform rust and attack by the southern pine bark beetle, as well as its ability to withstand wind storm damage better than slash or loblolly pine while creating vital habitat for animals, says Dr. William Puckett, state conservationist for the Alabama Natural Resource Conservation Service.
“We’re helping private landowners to restore, plant and manage longleaf forests,” Puckett says.
The initiative’s goal is to restore 8 million acres of longleaf forest across its original multistate range stretching from Texas to Virginia, says Tim Albritton, state staff forester for Alabama. The state has 501,172 acres of natural longleaf and 154,459 acres of artificially regenerated longleaf. Another 200,000 acres hold mixed forests of longleaf and other species of trees.
Dr. Salem Saloom believes growing longleaf is the best use of the 1,762 acres he owns in southern Alabama. He became involved with the initiative after Hurricane Ivan struck in 2004. His property was devastated, but he noticed his longleaf pines weathered the storm far better than his loblolly. So far, Saloom has transitioned 450 acres to longleaf.
“We know the longleaf will thrive, and it’s the right thing to do,” he says.
As his longleaf pines grow, they contribute to cleaner air and water on his property. They also create a thriving habitat for gopher tortoise, a threatened species, and other animals including bobwhite quail, red-cockaded woodpeckers, deer and Saloom’s particular passion, wild turkeys.
When it’s time to harvest the wood, Saloom expects a substantially greater return on his investment than if he had planted loblolly or slash pine. With longleaf, he expects to get up to 70 percent pole production, compared with around 20 percent for loblolly. Longleaf lumber is more valuable too.
Longleaf can be profitable even before the trees are harvested. Many landowners receive $50 to $100 per acre every year for their longleaf straw, which is valued by the landscaping industry, says Albritton.
“The pine straw markets have dramatically increased over the past five to 10 years, and across the Southeast longleaf straw brings a premium,” he says.
Financially, ecologically and aesthetically, longleaf can be the right choice for many landowners, Puckett says.
“For all the multiple uses, it forms a beautiful ecosystem,” he says.
Saloom is already enjoying the benefits of his decision to restore longleaf on his land.
“We want to leave this place better, to give back to the ecosystem,” he says. “Meanwhile, one can enjoy it along the way. We hunt and fish on the property. We do a lot of field days for children.”