Federal biologist Laurie Fenwood has a special name for her favorite tree, the longleaf pine. She calls it the wonder tree.

“Because it’s good for everything,” said Fenwood, who is leading America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Whatever the question, in the Southeast the answer is longleaf pine.”

Which southern pine tree species is most resistant to beetle infestation? Longleaf.

Which southern pine thrives during wet or dry periods? Longleaf.

Withstands hurricane-force winds? Tolerates fire? Is best for wildlife? Longleaf, longleaf and longleaf.

All of which has led Fenwood and others to a final question and answer: Which southern pine is likely the best suited to a changing climate? Longleaf, of course.

Before the European migration to North America, the longleaf pine forest stretched across more than 90 million acres from southern Virginia to Florida, and as far west as Texas. The tree dominated more than half of Georgia, filling the coastal plain from what is now Fort Benning in West Georgia to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in the southeast part of the state.

Longleaf reigned because it can grow in a broad range of habitats, from dry mountain slopes to sandy, swampy soils. It evolved with the southern pine beetle and frequent fire. Its large taproot provides a firm anchor, helping the tree withstand strong winds. In many aspects, longleaf wins over loblolly and slash pines, although many tree farmers prefer those yellow pines for their faster early growth and easier regeneration.

Today only pockets of the vast longleaf pine forest are left, totaling less than 4 percent of its historic range due to land clearing for development and agriculture, fire suppression, and the conversion of tree farms to short-rotation pines.

In 2009, the Service and other federal agencies joined states, universities and non-profit partners to launch America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative. The goal is to expand the longleaf pine forest from about 3.5 million acres today, to 8 million acres by 2024.

Millions of dollars in federal grants have been distributed to plant longleaf, remove invasive species, thin trees and prescribe fire. For example, the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program last year spent about $1.2 million across the Southeast to provide longleaf pine technical assistance and habitat improvement on private lands.

Emily Jo Williams, executive director of The Longleaf Alliance, a nonprofit organization established in 1995 to restore longleaf across its range, said “Especially in Georgia, longleaf is a good bet for a future that does include a changing climate ... When you look at predictions of how things will change, longleaf is a good preparation for those climate changes.”

In its 2009 report, Standing Tall: How Restoring Longleaf Pine Can Help Prepare the Southeast for Global Warming, the National Wildlife Federation contends longleaf also should be the centerpiece of carbon sequestration efforts in the Southeast. The report cites the long life of individual longleaf pines (up to 450 years) and their low-risk for rapidly releasing carbon due to disease or wildfires.

For the Service, and many partners in longleaf restoration, a prime motivator is species recovery.

As the longleaf pine forest dwindled in the 1700s and 1800s, so did species dependent on the longleaf ecosystem. Those include 29 federally protected species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, Eastern indigo snake, gopher tortoise and Cooley’s Meadowrue (a plant). Of the 290 species of amphibians and reptiles that occur in the Southeast, 170 are found in the remnants of the longleaf pine forest.

Additionally, nearly 900 plant species occur only in the longleaf forests. It’s counter-intuitive, but the monoculture of a forest dominated by longleaf pines leads to rich biodiversity of animals and plants that depend on its ecosystem.

The secret is fire.

Williams said the diverse wildlife depends on the diverse understory of grasses and herbaceous flowering plants that require frequent fire to maintain. Longleaf happens to be the one tree species that thrives under frequent, low-intensity fires, as does the understory plants that provide food and shelter for wildlife species, many of which are found nowhere else but the longleaf forest.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) has worked on longleaf restoration for nearly 15 years. Recently, the state received a two-year National Fish and Wildlife Foundation/Natural Resources Conservation Service grant to hire two biologists whose sole focus will be to assist private landowners in growing longleaf pines.

Reggie Thackston, Georgia WRD’s Game Management Section Private Lands Program Manager, said “many of Georgia’s wildlife species are tied to the Longleaf Pine Savanna habitat type. WRD’s effort is to try and restore that ecosystem to fullest extent feasible.”

Georgia’s conservation priorities include more than 20 animal and 56 plant species associated with the longleaf ecosystem, such as the bobwhite quail, a ground-dwelling bird that is Georgia’s official State Gamebird due to its popularity among small-game hunters.

Thackston estimates the state has about 500,000 acres of longleaf, about 14 percent of what’s left. He said a good public land example of the longleaf wiregrass system includes portions of the Silver Lake Wildlife Management Area in southwest Georgia, near Bainbridge.

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

Photos: USFWS

The unlikely, critical element for longleaf survival
Longleaf pine forests, which have dwindled for years, are being restored in Georgia. The unexpected secret to their success? Fire.