Monday, January 17, 2011

Longleaf Pine

Longleaf Pine (San Felasco State Preserve)
I just bought a copy of Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest by Lawrence Earley (University of North Carolina Press, 2004 ). It tells the story of a southern tree, longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and the diverse ecosystems it once dominated. These trees formerly covered vast areas of the coastal plain of North America, from southern Virginia to east Texas. 

I am less than 20% through the book, but already find it both revealing and challenging. I am hoping that before reading too much farther I will get a better sense of the local distribution of longleaf pine and understand why it apparently does not now occur on the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. Is past management at fault, or are more basic constraints at work? The species is regarded as the keystone of a unique and once widespread ecosystem, and losses over its once expansive distribution are decried by conservation biologists. Efforts are underway to reintroduce it on the Lower Suwannee Refuge, and any insights gained about strategies for restoration might prove useful. 

San Felasco longleaf (r) and loblolly (l)
We have longleaf pines near our home in Gainesville, in an area of pine flatwoods where we often hike, in neighborhoods and roadsides, scattered among loblololly (Pinus taeda) and slash (Pinus ellioti) pines, often rapidly being crowded out by oaks and other broad-leaf trees. They are abundant in varied habitats on the San Felasco Hammock State Preserve and are reproducing in areas subject to heavy management. Driving, as we often do, between Gainesville and Cedar Key, we see few longleaf pines until we get to Archer, whereupon they become frequent, being among the most abundant trees seen along the ten-mile stretch between Archer and Bronson. Thereafter, through the Devil's Hammock to Otter Creek and on to Cedar Key, scarcely a longleaf pine is to be seen. Slash pines are dominant, increasingly joined by scrubby sand pines (Pinus clausa) as we approach to coast.

We are puzzled by the apparent absence of longleaf pines on the refuge and wondering whether they were ever a dominant species there. Stay tuned. Reading Easley's book is like following a mystery story, wondering what clues may appear to reveal where the story is going. Follow us as the mystery unfolds.

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