Restoring the longleaf pine ecosystem: The role of fire
Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris Mill.) ecosystems once occupied 90 million acres in the southern United States coastal plain. These firedependent ecosystems dominated a wide range of coastal plain sites, including dry uplands and low, wet flatlands. Today, less than 4 million acres remain, but these ecosystems represent significant components of the region's cultural heritage, ecological diversity, timber resources, and present essential habitat for many animal and plant communities. This ecosystem is also the favorite habitat for endangered species like the red-cockaded woodpecker and the gopher tortoise. Fire was an essential component of the original longleaf pine ecosystems. The landscapes were characterized by open stands of mature longleaf pine with a savanna-like understory that was biologically diverse. Recent improvements in the technology to artificially regenerate longleaf pine have stimulated interest in restoring longleaf pine on many sites. Long-term studies show that the frequent use of fire hastens initiation of height growth, reduces undesirable competing vegetation, and stimulates growth and development of the rich understory. Fire is, therefore, an important element in establishing the species and is critical to achieve and maintain the biologically diverse conditions that are characteristic of the ecosystem.