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336 pp., 6 x 91/4, 34 illus., 1 map, notes, bibl., index

$18.95 paper
ISBN 978-0-8078-5699-4

Published: Fall 2004

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Looking for Longleaf
The Fall and Rise of an American Forest

by Lawrence S. Earley

Copyright (c) 2004 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.




A Conversation with Lawrence S. Earley
Author of Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest

Q: The longleaf pine once covered 92 million acres from Virginia to Texas, but now only about 3% of the original stand survives. What happened?
A: The disappearance of longleaf pine had a number of causes. A lot of longleaf fell to the needs of early settlers for places to live and farm. Hogs ranging freely through the forests consumed unimaginable amounts of longleaf seedlings, hindering the tree's reproduction. Longleaf also was exploited in completely unsustainable ways for turpentine and lumber and, in the twentieth century, foresters tried to protect longleaf pine forests from fires out of a mistaken belief that fire prevented the tree from reproducing. Ironically (or tragically) it was fire suppression that prevented forest reproduction, not fire. Later, naturally growing longleaf stands were deliberately replaced on many commercial forestlands with plantations of faster-growing species such as loblolly pine and slash pine.

Q: How does the longleaf pine differ from other kinds of pine?
A: Longleaf is the most resinous of any southern pine, a factor that made it the leading source of turpentine and other naval stores for two hundred years. Its wood was prized for its beauty and strength, with more heartwood than any other southern pine. Longleaf pine needles are also the longest of all the southern pine families, and they fall annually. The longleaf's needles are highly flammable, and help to fuel the fires that are critical to the forest's reproduction. The tree's thick bark, large seed size, and slow growth during its early years enable longleaf to thrive in these fire-prone areas.

Q: How would you describe the longleaf pine's growth cycle?
A: If other southern pines are sprinters, achieving height growth quickly, the longleaf pine is more like a long distance runner. The tree germinates quickly, but puts most of its growth below ground in the form of a long taproot. For the first few years of its life, a longleaf pine seedling huddles low on the ground and looks like a clump of grass. It continues to grow slowly for the first seven years of its life, but then spurts quickly, growing four or five feet in height each year. It begins to bear cones when it is about 25 years old, and it can live for about 500 years.

Q: Why did you decide to write about the longleaf pine?
A: It really grew out of an interest in the naval stores industry. Tar making and turpentining were major industries in North Carolina in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and very colorful ones. Yet I couldn't find anything written about them that was easily accessible to the ordinary reader. So I said, why not write a book about turpentining? Well, after doing some research I began to realize I couldn't write about the industry without knowing something about the tree and the forest. And from there it just grew to embrace the ecosystem, and the critters and plants, and then the history of the management of the forest.

Q: Would you agree that your book is as much about American and southern history as it is about natural history?
A: Human history takes place in a physical setting that's not just a backdrop to what occurs there but is a material cause of it. I'm not a historian, but I bet you can make a strong argument that you can't understand southern history without understanding the landscape and the natural communities that are part of this landscape. Forests, rivers, soils—these are the raw materials out of which people make their lives and their histories. Longleaf pine forests, for example, were part of the complex reasons that moved the English to settle Virginia, because the English realized that the trees could be used to make tar, which was essential for their navy. To understand why these trees were so rich in the resin that made tar is to add another dimension to the understanding of human history in America, and southern history in particular.

Q: What makes the longleaf pine forest so complex and so difficult for ecologists to understand?
A: I think ecologists would say that all ecosystems are complex and difficult to understand because they are made up of many plant and animal species that interrelate in complex ways. It can take a long time for a scientist, for example, to understand the life history of a single plant and the moth or butterfly that pollinates it. Learning how individual wildlife species are peculiarly adapted to open longleaf forests that burn a lot has taken time. An ecosystem is made up of thousands of interrelationships and adaptations like these.

Understanding forests of longleaf well enough to manage them successfully has proven very difficult. Some tree species reproduce easily—loblolly pine, for example. The longleaf pine, on the other hand, had a reputation for being difficult to grow, and that reputation has discouraged a lot of landowners from keeping it or planting it. That has changed in recent years due to the dogged work of foresters who have devoted decades to understanding how best to manage it.

Q: Where can one find longleaf pines?
A: You can find publicly accessible longleaf forests in every coastal southern state, from Virginia to Texas. I think the best way to find out where they are is to contact the state offices of The Nature Conservancy or the U.S. Forest Service or the state forest service. The Conservancy has a tremendous interest in conserving longleaf, and some of the most important forests are being managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Q: What can a visitor to a longleaf pine forest expect to see, smell, and hear?
A: One thing to note right off is that there is no single type of longleaf pine. Longleaf communities differ quite a lot. You could walk through a longleaf forest growing in sandy soils and it would look and feel very different than some longleaf forests growing in wetter and richer soils. It all depends on the type of soil where the forest grows and the amount of moisture in it and how often it has burned—longleaf needs frequent fire to survive. The ones that look the best have been burned regularly.

But all longleaf pine forests share certain characteristics. They're mostly open, with widely spaced trees—that's the main difference between this type of forest and hardwood forests like a Piedmont oak and hickory forest. And if they've been managed well and been frequently burned, they will have a flourishing groundcover consisting of grasses and a diversity of wildflowers. You'll see large fallen pinecones and a brown litter of pine needles. You'll smell the pine fragrance, and you'll hear the wonderful sound of the wind in the pine topsÑa lot like the distant sound of the surf.

Q: For many years, you were the editor of Wildlife in North Carolina magazine. How did this experience prepare you for writing this book?
A: When I first began working at Wildlife in North Carolina, I was given a monthly natural history column called "Nature's Ways" to write. That pressure to research and write each month on a wildlife-related topic was really my training for writing this book, as were the longer feature stories I wrote on conservation issues and natural areas like saltwater marshes and mountain bogs and swamps and rivers. I shamelessly took advantage of the willingness of experts all across the state to get out in the field with me and answer my questions. It was like having a 20-year course in wildlife biology, ecology, and botany taught one-on-one by some of the best scientists in the South.

Q: Is the longleaf pine threatened with extinction?
A: When I began writing Looking for Longleaf, my sense was that longleaf pine was doomed, or at least that was what most of the biologists and ecologists I talked to said. I was surprised to find that my story line changed in the fifteen years it took me to write the book. I can't say that the pessimism has totally lifted, not with the growth that the South is undergoing and the pressures on its forests, but there's a lot more energy in the longleaf world than before. There are landowners actually planting longleaf. People are beginning to see that it can be an economic asset. Laws protecting endangered species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker have forced the Forest Service to be better stewards of their longleaf holdings, and the Forest Service has embraced an ecosystem management model that looks very promising. There's a group, the Longleaf Alliance, that is working with private landowners all around the South who want to grow longleaf. These things didn't exist fifteen years ago.

Q: What else can be done to save the longleaf pine?
A: I don't think the issue is whether longleaf pine will be saved. There will most likely always be remnant forests of longleaf in the South. At the very worst, they'll be like zoos#151;people will visit just to see what a longleaf pine tree or a forest of them looks like. The real issue is whether longleaf will be able to continue to function as an ecosystem—whether fires will still run through these forests and maintain them in good condition, whether the interconnectedness of the plants and animals will continue or whether some individual species will drop out and threaten the whole edifice.

You know, nature isn't modest and tidy. Think of the tallgrass prairies of the Midwest, how vast they were. Think of the oceans. And think of the extent of the longleaf pine forest—sprawling throughout the coastal regions of the South from Virginia to Texas. Nature seems to like redundancy and prodigality, and what I mean by that is big vast systems. Well, we've lost the big vast system of longleaf pine. We don't have enough of it to experience that, and there's no way we will ever get it back. That's a real loss.

What we can do, and it's something I'm hopeful about, is continue to use the publicly owned longleaf pine forests in our national forests and military lands wisely, and give private landowners incentives to grow longleaf so they can make money from it. Manage it well so it reproduces itself and keeps all of the connections. And also, spread the word: here's a native forest in trouble, possibly making it back to health, right here in the South. Kids don't have to study the rainforests, as biologically diverse and important as they are, to study basic environmental lessons. We have incredible environmental lessons to be learned right here in our backyard.

For more information about the preservation of longleaf pine forests, take a look at the following websites:

NOTE: This interview may be reprinted in its entirety with the following credit: An interview with Lawrence S. Earley, author of LOOKING FOR LONGLEAF: THE FALL AND RISE OF AN AMERICAN FOREST (University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2004). The text of this interview, as well as a selection of photographs for media use, is available at www.ibiblio.org/uncp/media/earley.


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