The Longleaf Pine

by Jack Hitt - South Carolina - Jan/Feb 08

Rebuilding the fireforest of the Old South

Richard Porcher walks me out to the edge of a parcel of his land near Manning, South Carolina. It’s a bright July morning, and he is dressed in faded seersucker pants tucked into knee-high waders. A floppy hat sits atop a swatch of white hair. He speaks in a Charleston accent so old school that the air practically wafts with traces of wisteria and Japanese plum.

He sweeps his walking stick across the field, proud to show me these fifty acres, even though they could not look more bombed-out, clear-cut, and beat-up. Chunks of graying splintered trees lie about on sandy soil. Dead hickory saplings wilt beneath crisp leaves, and other throttled hardwoods crumple into black thickets. Here and there a single oak stands isolated in the dusty air like a child’s cartoon sketch of a tree. The place could pass for the outskirts of Baghdad.

“We sprayed to kill the hickory and the oak but it didn’t work,” he says, and pokes his stick into some audacious green brush. “These will branch up quickly and we’ll be right back where we started from, so they’ll have to spray again this fall.”

Porcher winces at talk of chemicals. He is a retired professor of biology at the Citadel and coauthor of the definitive text A Guide to Wildflowers in South Carolina. He wishes there were some other way, but he knows that an ancient environmental battle is being waged here between new terrains — hardwood forests, cotton fields, other farm land uses, pulp-paper pine crops — and the primordial longleaf pine woods that flourished here for millions of years. The only way to win, on this particular acreage, is to strip the old slash pine forest that previously stood here to the bare canvas of the underlying soil and start anew. The price is high, Porcher confesses, but insists it will be worth it. A generation from now, when others stand here, they will be looking into an unusual woodland — the original landscape of much of the Old South: a longleaf pine forest that flourishes by catching on fire every year.

To any American who knows by rote that “only you can prevent forest fires,” this single fact sounds preposterous. Yet, if the tropics can boast the rainforest, which needs constant and heavy downpours, then the Southeastern United States can claim what has been called the “fireforest,” which needs an annual low-intensity pine-straw fire to jump-start the mysterious mechanics of its woodlands and nurse a stunning diversity of wildlife comparable to that found in the Amazon.

Now, thousands of Southern landowners like Porcher are actively engaged in this restoration, and part of the motivation is ecological: Native wildlife flourish best under the longleaf’s sun-welcoming canopy. Part of it, though, is historical, even spiritual, as many Southerners return the land to its antebellum pristine condition. But part of the changeover is due to a handful of devotees at organizations such as the Longleaf Alliance and Tall Timbers. In the past two decades, they have pulled off an amazing feat: convincing landowners of the value of fire; sussing out the science of planting the finicky longleaf seedlings in the soil; and politicking the government into encouraging this hard work. As a result, today’s landowners luxuriate in a host of government subsidies — cost-sharing plans to kill off the invasive hardwoods, support to seed the longleaf’s understory, as well as outright payments to maintain longleaf forests until they get established again. Rather than continue to squeeze depleted farmlands, now landowners can make money by turning over spent cotton fields and exhausted pastures to longleaf.

Their success recently became measurable, according to Dean Gjerstad, codirector of the Longleaf Alliance at Auburn University’s School of Forestry. In 2005, there was an increase of 604,386 acres of longleaf planted by private landowners and another increase of 303,320 acres on public lands. It’s been a long time coming: That’s the first recorded increase in overall longleaf acreage since the forest’s precipitous decline began in the years after the Civil War.

For many Southerners, the “forest” is what they see just off the interstate: dense hardwood thickets or row-planted loblollies that flicker past like a picket fence. They are no longer familiar with the sublime beauty of a longleaf forest, with its low ground cover that rises not much more than a foot or eighteen inches, opening up to an airy mid-story creating sunny, prairie-like vistas through ramrod-straight longleaf poles. Nor do they know the largely hidden history of its ghastly holocaust a century ago, a nightmare tale of ignorance, greed, and desperation.