Cooperative effort drives restoration of longleaf pine in Virginia

virginia department of forestryThe Virginia Department of Forestry is spearheading an effort to restore what was once the most common tree in the uplands of Southeast Virginia, the longleaf pine.

The towering trees were nearly eliminated a century ago, but they are making a gradual comeback after decades of restoration efforts.“Before the European settlement, there were between 1 million and 1.5 million acres of longleaf pine forests in Virginia. By 1990, there were fewer than 200 individual longleaf pine trees remaining that could be confidently determined to be ‘native,’ or originating from parent trees located in Virginia,” said Research Program Manager Jerre Creighton at the Virginia Department of Forestry.

“Today, even after decades of planting and recent increased focus on restoration, there are less than 10,000—and many of those acres are planted with seedlings originating outside Virginia,” Creighton said.

One of the first forest exports from the New World was longleaf pine in the form of ship masts, turpentine, tar and pitch. An estimated 90 million acres of longleaf forests in the early United States were used for the construction of ships, railroads and buildings, but those acres often were reforested with loblolly pine.

Andrew Smith, senior assistant director of governmental relations for Virginia Farm Bureau Federationsaid longleaf pine “offers a great number of benefits, economically, over many other species. In recent years it has been the preferred source for pine straw used in landscaping, and it can withstand difficult weather and high winds.”

Creighton said the real work of locating and protecting the few remaining native Virginia longleaf trees began in the 1980s. Cone collections from those trees to provide native seedlings for restoration efforts began around 1990. More intensive efforts resulting in significant seedling crops started in 2007.

He said there are now 9,475 acres of longleaf pine in Virginia, and the upcoming planting season should help surpass the 10,000-acre mark.

“It’s important to emphasize that the longleaf restoration effort in Virginia took a quantum leap forward when the multiple stakeholders sharing an interest in longleaf organized into the Virginia Longleaf Pine Cooperators Group,” Creighton said.

Longleaf pine seed yield is irregular and labor-intensive. With improved grafting techniques being used to establish a seed production orchard, seed production is expected to eventually provide an annual crop of 250,000 seedlings.

“The current importance of longleaf is tied to its biological and ecological uniqueness,” Creighton said. “Those restoring longleaf in Virginia are concerned about the near-extinction of the species, have a passion for saving it and value it for its aesthetic beauty and high ecosystem diversity.”

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