The National Wildlife Federation is elevating an iconic but humble species, the longleaf pine, to warrior status in the fight against global warming. On Thursday, the federation released a new report, “Standing Tall: How Restoring the Longleaf Pine Can Help Prepare the Southeast for Global Warming,” that promotes reforestation of longleafs as a smart strategy to deal with climate change.

“Bringing back the traditional Southern piney woods turns out to be one of the most climate-smart investments we can make in the Southeast’s future,” Bruce A. Stein, associate director for Wildlife Conservation and Global Warming for the NWF, said in a teleconference Thursday announcing the new report.

The report calls for a new conservation initiative, boosting the amount of longleaf pine in nine Southeastern states from the current 3.4 million acres to 8 million acres over the next 15 years. “It is high time,” the report states, “to raise the profile of longleaf pine ecosystem restoration to be comparable with that of other major restoration projects, such as the Everglades, Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes.”

The Southeast is already the scene of ongoing longleaf pine restoration, some of it paid for by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, popularly known as stimulus funds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently approved $839,000 in stimulus funds for four longleaf pine restoration projects covering parts of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

The stimulus funds were distributed to Tall Timbers Research and Land Conservancy, The Longleaf Alliance, The Nature Conservancy and the South Carolina Parks Department. In most cases, these groups plant longleaf pines on privately owned land, and where necessary clear other types of trees from these lands.

The new report highlights the latest scientific research on global warming’s effects in the Southeast and how it puts Southern forests at risk.

The report also describes how longleaf pine forests are uniquely resilient to the long term impacts of global warming and the opportunities they present for forest landowners. It demonstrates that longleaf pine systems are naturally more resilient to climate extremes than other Southern pine species due to their ability to withstand severe windstorms, resist pests, tolerate wildfires and drought, and capture carbon pollution from the atmosphere.

“The South will experience many impacts from global warming in the years ahead, from sea-level rise, to increasingly violent storms, to potentially prolonged drought and wildfire, to the spread of invasive species,” said Eric Palola, senior director of NWF’s Forests for Wildlife program. “We need new tools to deal with the effects of climate change in the South, and the good news is that bringing back the iconic longleaf pine ecosystem is one of the best tools available.”

Longleaf pine once covered as much as 90 million acres in the Southeast. Today, however, the remaining longleaf pine forests are estimated at 3.4 million acres, just 3 percent of their peak range. The decline is due mainly to land clearing for human occupation and agriculture, conversion to short-rotation pines to feed the paper industry, and the suppression of fire.

“A substantial part of America’s environmental future is tied to this one species,” Harvard University professor emeritus Edward O. Wilson writes in the report’s foreword. “The original longleaf ecosystem was once one of America’s largest, stretching from the eastern Virginia plains to central Florida and thence westward to Texas. Ancient in origin, it comprised — and its scattered old-growth remnants still comprise — one of the biologically richest habitats in North America.”

The report was prepared with two forest conservation groups, America’s Longleaf and The Longleaf Alliance, and input from 13 representatives of environmental groups and universities.

Phil Kloer is a public affairs specialist for the Southeastern region of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Also on the web: 

• Download a copy of the report