Years ago, I use to have a newsletter. Around 1986, I printed that there used to be 80 million (80,000,000) acres of longleaf land. To my amazement, I got a phone call at home from a forester who told me I was wrong. There were only 40 million acres at best. Of course, I asked her where did she learn this?
Recently I was at the Longleaf Alliance conference. That number has jumped to 90,000,000 acres of original longleaf land. The longleaf land stretches across the Eastern Seaboard from the southern tip of Maryland down to the Gulf of Mexico to east Texas. It stretches up into the Appalachian Plateau of Rome, Ga., and Jacksonville, Ala., (the mountain longleaf was unknown to this forester).
The Longleaf Alliance began its meetings in 1995 in Mobile, Ala., where it was a dissemination of longleaf research. As it progressed, the longleaf pine has been shuttled to the back and the conference is more about the vast array of ecosystems under the longleaf pine monoculture. Yep, the longleaf pine forest is about second in the world for diversity.
This diversity is great except it in itself is not a monoculture of diversity. For example, I have longleaf here in South Carolina and in Georgia. Both have different understory plant diversity (Georgia more than South Carolina) but neither have the infamous wiregrass. The longleaf in Georgia has bluestem, while my stand in South Carolina has plain old broom sedge. In fact, the stand in Georgia has a lot more grasses in it. Both were old field, both were planted in longleaf, and both are the same age. I planted the trees introduced fire back into the regimen and abracadabra, I have native vegetation growing back onto that row crop earth without planting a grass.
I mention this because are we doing a service to the land by planting what is called "native grasses"? Yes, the grasses are native to the Southeast but are they native to this and neighboring counties? Maybe, maybe not, depending upon which grass species is being planted. Over the past years, we have planted things that were not native to find out there is a problem with that plant. Could planting a non-native grass force out the native vegetation? No research has been done on this question. While wiregrass and bluestem grasses are native to the lower counties of South Carolina, they are not native here nor are they native to the more inland counties within the longleaf range in South Carolina.
If we leave the cropland bare for 18 months or more, plant longleaf and burn, the native grasses will come back. You may argue that the seed bank is gone. I don't know. I do know that the land in Georgia had been cropped from 1858 until 2006 and the grasses came back. On the land planted in loblolly, fire has not been introduced and there is not the grass diversity there is on the burned longleaf sites. Furthermore, the loblolly planted sites have been in forest production at least 100 out of the 150-plus years our family has owned the land.
The important longleaf pine research that came out of the Longleaf Alliance Conference was planting density. We are planting too few trees per acre to grow quality longleaf pole timber. The research showed that planting 900 trees per acre gave the optimum 81 percent poles while planting 300 to 500 pines gave a dismal percentage. The more longleaf planted, up to 1,200 trees per acre, the more bales of pine straw. However, when the planting density got above 900 trees per acre, the number of poles decreased.
The CRP longleaf stands are getting of age to show what kind of trees they will be and they are ugly trees. Most of the time, the trees are forked, cankered or have huge lower limbs ruining the tree form. These are not the trees we had before in tree form. There is nothing wrong with their gene pool. We are just planting them on fertilized sites with a spacing not found in nature. It is interesting; I can go to cutover sites and see the same seedling becoming stately trees.
Longleaf is a beautiful tree that is the most valued softwood in the Southeast. The longleaf pine forest is one of the most diverse in the world and is home to many endangered species. However, are we putting back the forest in the correct manner? In the rush to increase longleaf pine acreages through federal government programs, are we really going about this the correct way? The programs seem to be absent of science in the push to increase our acreage from the dismal 3,000,000 back toward the 90,000,000 acres.
If you do not know me, I should tell you that no one loves a longleaf pine or longleaf forest more than I do. It is by far my favorite pine.
Beth Richardson is an agent with the Clemson University Extension Service in Orangeburg County.