By Jody Conrad
It’s hard to imagine today, but just over 100 years ago the coastal plains of America from Virginia to eastern Texas were covered by about 92 million acres of longleaf pines. Fortunately, we have folks like Vernon Compton who care about preserving and restoring the 1.3 million acres left in Northwest Florida and South Alabama.
Compton, who works with the Longleaf Alliance as their director of the Gulf Coast Plain Ecosystem Partnership, said that the Alliance is a voluntary public and private land partnership formed in 1996 to preserve and restore these forests.
“Today we only have about 12,533 acres of virgin old-growth longleaf left in this area, and most of it is on Eglin Air Force Base,” he said. “Quite possibly all that spared these acres was the inability to get a railroad spur there.”
According to Compton, a lot can be learned from these remaining forests. Some of these things include diverse flora and fauna that once existed on the forest floors that look nothing like the dense brushy thickets associated with pine forests today.
“Over 170 species of herbaceous plants are native to these ecosystems, with over 6,000 plants found only in the longleaf ecosystem of the Coastal Plains,” he said. “Where the forest floor today is choked out with invasive woodies like Chinese privet, it was once covered with low-growing native shrubs and wildflowers that reveled under the canopies of the trees. The groundcover is the most important part of the ecosystem and without the pines, the groundcover disappears.”
The trees themselves were home to many endangered animals that are at risk of becoming extinct. “The red cockaded woodpecker is an example of an endanger bird that we are working diligently to restore habitat for,” he explains. “They thrive only in these coastal pines and nowhere else in the world.”
Local residents are no strangers to the smoky skies of forest fires, and Compton explains the role that fire plays in keeping these forests healthy.
“Many local people get angry about the smoky skies and think we’re destroying forests, but the public needs to be educated about the role fires play in forest health,” he said. “Longleaf is a ‘fire forest,’ meaning that without it, the forest floor would be choked with hardwoods and woody shrubs, leaving no room for the native plants and animals.
“Since we live in the ‘lightning strike’ capital of the world, lightning used to take care of this problem. Then man intervened. For many years, the federal forestry department believed that fire was bad, and today we frequently see on the news how this thinking has worked out for California. These days, very detailed plans allow controlled burns to do the work nature once handled. When the thickets are burned, the forest thrives again,” he added.
The Longleaf Alliance strives to ensure a sustainable future for this ecosystem through partnerships, landowner assistance, and educational and outreach opportunities. “Without this work, we’d still look like the early 1900s when the logging industry had cut down every pine in site and the vestiges had been ravaged by the turpentiners and wild hogs,” Compton concludes.
“While the longleaf was a huge component in building much of America, we’ve come a long way in understanding the value of leaving portions of our forests undisturbed and replanting and restoring what we need to use.”