Interview with the 2016 Longleaf Partnership Council Chair

Interview with the 2016 Longleaf Partnership Council Chair

Recently, the Chair of the Longleaf Partnership Council was interviewed for his thoughts on a variety of topics regarding longleaf pine. Here is the full interview.

1.  Tell us about America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative (ALRI), and what the Initiative is hoping to accomplish?

The ALRI is perhaps the best example of a landscape scale conservation initiative in North America. The Initiative’s scope is broad (nine states and a historic range that exceeds 90 million acres, roughly the size of Montana), and a  network of support is represented by 33 public and private partners from state and federal agencies to NGOs that participate on the Longleaf Regional Partnership Council.  With increasing challenges – urbanization, fire suppression, climate change, incompatible forestry practices, etc. – that are accelerating ecosystem loss, we have to set bold goals at system scale. Increasing the amount of longleaf pine forest from 3.3 million to 8 million acres, which ALRI is committed to doing, is just that type of goal.

2.  How did you get involved with ALRI? 

My first day coming to work for The Nature Conservancy coincided with one of the first Longleaf Partnership Council meetings in October 2011.  The Nature Conservancy played a key role from the very beginning in the development of ALRI’s Range Wide Conservation Plan. My position as the Longleaf Pine Whole System Director is a commitment to the vision and initiative. 

3.  As the current Chair for the Longleaf Partnership Council, what has been the most rewarding experience so far?

I would characterize the first few years of the Initiative as growth and exploration. Now, the Initiative has matured and we are in a position to look back and learn from where we have come with a clear understanding of what restoration at this scale is going to take.  Part of that seems to be a willingness to challenge ourselves and determine what it is going to take to reach 8 million acres of longleaf pine. I have been pleasantly surprised with the unanimous commitment to our goal as well as an openness to discuss how much more we need to do – in terms of funding, fire management, restoration, etc. – to get to 8 million acres.

4.  What do you want people to know about longleaf and its importance to the Southeastern United States? 

First off, longleaf pine is an iconic American landscape.  Like the Rocky Mountains, Great Plains, the Badlands, the North Woods, Longleaf Pine defines an entire region of this country.  As a highly valuable wood, it fueled this country’s economic growth, helped build the great American cities, and time after time Longleaf has sustained human culture from the first Americans to present. Today, the longleaf pine forest makes me think of Shel Silverstein’s beautiful children’s story, The Giving Tree.  The ecosystem has given until there is little left to give. Now we must give back not just for the sake of the longleaf pine forest, but because there can not be any doubt that the success and vitality of our own human communities rely upon healthy natural systems that sustain us in so many ways.

5.  How can the general public support longleaf restoration efforts?

The general public needs to voice strong unequivocal support for the protection and management of natural places like longleaf pine. Hunters, hikers, photographers, etc. – the entire public that enjoys outdoor recreation needs to be vocal in their support. Even those that are not avid outdoor recreationists need to demonstrate their support for the protection of natural areas for the clear water, wood, and other benefits longleaf provides our communities.

6.  What obstacles do we face in reaching ALRI's goal of restoring 8 million acres of longleaf by 2025? 

We have made a lot of progress on public and private lands with longleaf restoration to the point that we are now averaging about 150,000 acres per year being established or planted.  That is a tremendous accomplishment.  If you multiply that out over the next 8 years (our goal of 8 million acres of longleaf pine was set for 2025), we would end up with around 6 milliion acres.  So, despite our progress, we would come up well short, and that is assuming that we are not losing any longleaf.  Recently the Forest Service has produced an updated analysis that suggests we are experiencing substantial annual losses of established longleaf pine forests.  So, we need to significantly increase and accelerate establishment and planting on both public and private lands and we need to understand why and where we are losing longleaf pine in order to try and prevent continued losses.

7.  How will longleaf restoration benefit communities, animals and plants in the Southeast? 

The benefits to plants and animals are expectedly strong.  There are currently 30 Federally-listed species associated with longleaf pine ecosystems and approximately 40 additional species under review for listing.  Proper management and restoration of longleaf pine forests will provide habitat for the listed species and likely prevent the need to place additional species on the Endangered Species List. For many, including private landowners and the Department of Defense, avoiding the listing of a species with proactive action is an important economic consideration to avoid regulatory restrictions that could result from listing of additional species as threatened or endangered. 

Benefits to people might be categorized in two ways: the things that we take from the forest and the services that it provides. Longleaf pine forests produce valuable products like pine straw and lumber.  The wood is stronger and denser than other southern pines making it more suitable for structural lumber. It produces straight poles.  Its resistance when compared to most other southern pines to catastrophic environmental effects such as wind damage (from hurricanes), wildfire, drought, and pine beetle outbreaks can also provide a risk reduction strategy for landowners.  In addition, longleaf pine forests that are well-managed provide exceptional recreational opportunities.  If burned regularly, they provide a way to control wildfire from reaching catastrophic conditions and can also protect adjacent or embedded human development.  Some research suggests that well-managed longleaf provides more water that can be used for other purposes. The benefits for all residents, both human and animal, are there. Many we are just beginning to quantify.   

8. How would you describe longleaf to someone who is unfamiliar with the ecosystem? 

It’s so much more than a tree.  A longleaf pine forest is really grassland with trees scattered throughout it. The trees are only a part of the story – it’s the grasses and forbs that complete it. If you visit a longleaf pine forest in the fall you'll witness the exquisite eruption of wildflowers or find a pitcher plant bog embedded within a longleaf pine forest.  But, longleaf pine is so vast, with such variation that, depending on where you are in the range, it defies a single descriptor. Some places it grows are in dry deep sand hills, and other places in moist flatwoods.  Variety would be the single word that best describes longleaf pine. 

- The ALRI Communications Team would like to thank Troy Ettel for participating in this interview!