The demise of the longleaf pine

House Concurrent Resolution No. 2 during the Arkansas legislative session of 1939 designated the pine tree as our state tree.

A state representative from down in my neck of the woods, Boyd Tackett of Pike County, called timber one of the greatest sources of wealth in our state and “one of the few renewable resources.”

Tackett’s resolution drew no opposition.

Unfortunately, the resolution never specified a particular type of pine as the state tree even though Arkansas’ forests are covered with shortleaf and loblobby pine trees.

“Before European-American in-migration, almost all of Arkansas was forested with notable diversity,” David Ware writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net). “Until the maturation of Arkansas’ rail network in the late 19th century, timber cutting was driven by agricultural concerns or local demands for wood. Rails brought mass access to external markets, and Arkansas timber left the state at a rapid rate.

“By 1930, many former forest sections were effectively logged out. However, war production plus postwar economic and housing booms ensured good markets for pine. Depression-era forest restoration measures, public and private alike, ensured future supplies of salable logs. By 1951, pine growth exceeded annual removals by some 13 percent.”

While Arkansas is known for its shortleaf and loblolly pines, there was a time when the longleaf pine belt dominated much of the South. The longleaf range was from southeastern Virginia to east Texas in a belt running about 150 miles inland from the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

That longleaf belt even widened northward into west-central Georgia and east-central Alabama. I’ve found claims that some longleaf pines once were native to small parts of Arkansas, but they were rare.

Through the years, those longleaf pine stands became almost a thing of the past. In 1995, an organization known as The Longleaf Alliance was formed to foster partnerships between private landowners, the forest industry, federal agencies, conservation groups and researchers.

Based in Andalusia, Ala., the organization has set about restoring the longleaf pine in parts of the South.

“Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden used the phrase ‘be quick but don’t hurry’ to encourage his record-breaking teams to be so good at the basics of basketball that they could set a phenomenal, game-winning pace while avoiding the mistakes inherent in hurrying,” writes Emily Jo Williams, the director of the alliance. “I think this philosophy fits well with our approach at The Longleaf Alliance and in our collective approach to longleaf restoration and management. When you think about an ecosystem reduced from 90 million acres to about 3.5 million acres, a sense of urgency is appropriate. Maybe we should hurry. Then again, let’s think about the challenge that we face.

“Much has changed across the range of longleaf country since the glory days of seemingly endless longleaf forests that afforded a squirrel a hassle-free journey across vast distances without so much as a tiptoe onto terra firma. Towns, cities, interstates, country roads, industrial complexes and other less-than-friendly features now populate places that once nurtured longleaf forests and their inhabitants. People just don’t seem to understand that smoke can actually be a good thing.”

She mentions smoke because it was fire that defined where longleaf pine forests were found. Frequent fires skimmed along the ground’s surface, nurturing the ecosystem. Following the Civil War, the South began changing rapidly. By 1880, virgin longleaf forests had attracted the interest of Northern logging companies. Production of longleaf pine timber peaked in 1909.

By 1938, the Great Southern Lumber Co, the largest sawmill in the world, had run out of longleaf pine trees to cut. The sawmill shut down. The last crop of longleaf pine to be worked for turpentine was in 1994.

“In a little over 150 years, the longleaf pine forest transitioned from a forest that dominated the Southern landscape to one of near anonymity,” the alliance writes at its website (www.longleafalliance.org). “Although remnants of this once great forest abound, they are often only noticeable to the ardent observer.”

In a 1913 article that referred to longleaf pine trees as pitch pine, the American Lumberman stated: “Almost as soon as the beautiful white pine of New England began to be expropriated by the English government for its navy, and immediately following the development of commerce in that wood, pitch pine began to be exported from Savannah, Brunswick and Darien, all in Georgia. The last is a name that would hardly be known as that of an American port but for pitch pine, while Brunswick has its chief fame, and its only fame abroad, because of its exports of pitch pine. But lumber and timbers of size and strength have not been the only products of the longleaf forests. Chiefly from this wood has been developed our century-old business in naval stores.

“It is still, next to the chief species of the Pacific coast, the wood of greatest supply, and its range of growth is greatest, so far as solid bodies of it are concerned, of any wood. Compared to it, the splendid forests of northern white pine were limited in area. But pitch pine was native from southern Virginia south along the Atlantic seaboard and thence westward into Texas. Only one interval of account was found, and that was where the longleaf pine belt was cut across by the Mississippi valley.”

In the spring of 1773, Philadelphia naturalist William Bartram had traveled across the South and described a huge forest of the “most stately pine trees that can be imagined.”

The decline from those 90 million acres to less than 4 million acres is among the most drastic reductions of any major natural ecosystem in the country.

Longleaf pine trees can live for 300 years. But the virgin longleaf pines were cut decades ago, and the removal of the necessary fire that allows longleaf pines to thrive and reproduce also led to the decline of this ecosystem.

“Areas with productive soils were cleared for agriculture,” it’s written at www.landscope.org. “Other areas with sandy, less fertile soils were left in trees and grazed as open range. During most of the 1800s, longleaf pine trees were used for turpentine production. The sides of the trees were scarred with sharp tools so the resin ran into containers, then collected and distilled for a wide variety of uses.

“By the 1880s, railroads had been built into much of the region, and pine trees close to the railroads had been cut for lumber. By 1930, nearly all the longleaf pine trees on the entire coastal plain from Virginia to Texas had been cut. Cutover lands were abandoned as lumber companies moved on to uncut areas.

“When these lands were reforested, usually loblolly pine or slash pine was planted. These trees were much easier to grow commercially and were better suited to the short-rotation pine plantations that supported the growing paper industry in the region.”

Here’s wishing The Longleaf Alliance success in bringing back forests filled with this majestic tree.

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