Longleaf pine forests once dominated the southeastern Coastal Plain, cloaking more than 90 million acres at the time of European colonization. Old-growth longleaf pine found throughout the Southeast provided a significant source of timber and naval store products such as tar, pitch and turpentine through the early 1900s. An estimated 3 million acres of longleaf forest remain and these are threatened by deforestation, development, fire suppression and conversion of land to other forest types and uses. More than 120 species of plants found in association with these remnant forests are on the regional list of proposed endangered, threatened and sensitive species (USFWS 1995).
Fire is essential for longleaf pine regeneration and for many other fire adapted plants to produce seed. Historically, lightning strikes ignited frequent wildfires maintained an open understory and supported a rich herbaceous layer. Surveys of herbaceous ground cover species within longleaf pine ecosystems yield the highest diversity for any North American community subjected to routine fire (Walker 1993, 1998). Plant diversity is greatly diminished in the absence of fire. Sunlight dependent plant species are eclipsed by shade loving species as the bare mineral soils required for germination are covered in dead plant material.
Present day land managers use controlled, prescribed fire to stimulate plant growth during the spring and summer or to reduce woody debris accumulation (fuel) in the winter. Periodic burning reduces the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires that can severely impact wildlands and the expanding wildland urban interface. Trained personnel can recreate the beneficial effects of a natural fire by adhering to safety protocols and specific controlled conditions.
Contact the local Sandhills Prescribed Burn Association if you are a private landowner and would like information and assistance bringing fire back to your forest.
Vertebrate species characteristic of southeastern longleaf pine ecosystems include 36 mammals and 86 birds (Engstrom 1993) while reptiles and amphibians total 38 and 34 species respectively (Guyer and Bailey 1993). A few species are uniquely adapted to this fire dependent ecosystem including Bachman’s sparrow (Peucaea aestivalis), gopher frog (Rana capito), Northern pine snake (Pituophis melanoleucus), Southern hognose snake (Heterodon simus) and a federally endangered invertebrate, the St. Francis Satyr (Neonympha mitchellii), a butterfly species found nowhere else but within Fort Bragg.
Specialized plant species found in longleaf pine habitats include the Sandhills lily (Lilium pyrophilum), endemic to Virginia and the Carolinas, and a species of pixie moss found only in the Carolinas (Pyxidanthera brevifolia). Federally listed rough-leaved loosestrife (Lysimachia asperulifolia) is limited to small populations throughout North and South Carolina.