History and current condition of longleaf pine in the Southern United States
Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris Mill.) was once one of the most ecologically important tree species in the Southern United States. Longleaf pine and its accompanying forest ecosystems covered vast swaths of the Southern United States, spanning an estimated 92 million acres. Although once one of the most extensive forest ecosystems in North America, only a fraction of these longleaf pine forests remain today. Here we present a brief description of longleaf pine ecosystems and their constituent parts, a history of longleaf pine in the South, and the recent historical and current status of longleaf pine forests as sampled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis program. We present estimated changes to the longleaf pine forests, implications for conservation of the species, and suggestions for future research. While longleaf pine dominated forests have received considerable attention and land managers and conservation professionals are working to maintain and improve these important systems, longleaf pine forests currently only occupy a minor portion of the southern landscape. There are positive signs in this report, however, that point toward potential improvements. For example, the number of longleaf pine saplings has been increasing, the longleaf pine/oak acreage represents a considerable opportunity for restoration to longleaf pine forests, and in some areas of the longleaf pine range young stands are developing to aid replacement of those lost. Significant challenges to expanding the coverage of longleaf pine dominated forests do exist. However, with targeted research and conservation efforts, longleaf pine forests can thrive once again across the South.