Longleaf: Back from the brink

Published 10:20 pm Friday, July 29, 2016


A young longleaf pine tree.

A young longleaf pine tree.

It was once called “the tree that built Tidewater,” but — partly as a result of that — it was effectively extinct in Virginia for a while.

The restoration of the longleaf pine is now so important that the Virginia Department of Forestry has hired a full-time coordinator for the program.

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James Schroering started work about a month ago in the grant-funded position. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service and the Longleaf Stewardship Fund all contributed to the position.

“It’s not just about planting a tree,” Schroering said this week. “It’s about ecosystem restoration.”

The longleaf pine once occupied more than one million acres in southeast Virginia, the northern outpost of the species, which ranges south to Florida and west to Texas.

James Schroering, left, and Harvey Darden of the Virginia Department of Forestry. Schroering is the new longleaf pine coordinator for the state.

James Schroering, left, and Harvey Darden of the Virginia Department of Forestry. Schroering is the new longleaf pine coordinator for the state.

However, only about 200 native longleaf pines remain in Virginia today. The causes of its depletion are numerous and mostly have to do with the arrival of European settlers, who used the tree to build ships and to produce pitch, tar and turpentine. They cleared longleaf pine stands for agricultural use. They introduced feral hogs, which eat the seedlings. They suppressed naturally occurring fire, which is vital to the longleaf ecosystem because its seeds need to come into contact with bare ground to germinate.

The tree is important, because it supports a diverse and valuable ecosystem that also includes other endangered species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker.

The longleaf can be differentiated from the much more plentiful loblolly because its needles are longer — 8 to 12 inches, versus only 6 to 8 for the loblolly. Its pinecones are also twice as big. The longleaf is also much more resistant to pests and disease than other types of pines.

Trees native to Virginia fare better in Virginia than those from other states, said Harvey Darden, director of agency lands for the Virginia Department of Forestry.

“It becomes adapted to its region,” he said. “That makes it even more important that we preserve the native Virginia longleaf pine.”

The efforts are well under way, Darden said. The department has been working on longleaf projects for many years.

“We finally got to the point where we felt that we needed somebody working on it full-time,” he said.

The department grows seedlings from pinecones of native trees and uses them to produce future longleaf pines. A six-acre orchard near Providence Forge is used for this purpose, with the eventual goal of producing an annual crop of 250,000 seedlings.

Several areas where longleaf pines have been re-established exist in Suffolk. The largest one is South Quay Sandhills Natural Area Preserve, a 3,143-acre tract located along the Blackwater River in southwestern Suffolk. It is owned by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

In addition, about 30 acres of longleaf pine were planted in 2011 in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, with more planned.

Schroering said he looks forward to the challenge.

“It’s a native keystone species,” he said.

He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Purdue University. His job will include promoting longleaf planting, prescribed burning and good management practices, and also will focus on controlling populations of the southern pine beetle.

“Jim’s knowledge and skill set will help us ensure that we achieve our strategic goals,” Bettina Ring, State Forester of Virginia, stated in a press release. “By helping us get more longleaf pine planted and cared for and protecting the existing pine resource from southern pine beetle, we’ll have a healthier and more diverse pine resource that will benefit all Virginians.”