Long Leaf Pines (Take my Breath Away)

Gioia Kuss


The long-leaf pine forest ecosystem now exists in fragmented clumps but once covered 90 million acres of the southeastern United States. The open nature of the woods, with light filtering through the lacy canopy, supports multiple species, human and other, which appreciate its open ecological health.

Human development threatens its fire-renewed existence, which balances straight and tall pines with a lush understory of wiregrass that uniquely supports a biodiverse habitat. Endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers and ubiquitous eastern bluebirds soar easily between branches and nests.

Snow is uncommon in North Carolina, but in January 2018 it did. Excessive heat, unprecedented storms, and anomalous snowstorms in the south are what we can expect in this era of climate crisis. “UNLESS someone… cares a whole awful lot,” will we see beyond short-term gains to protect our planet and a full complement of species?

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  • Seeing beyond the forest for the trees in a long-leaf pine forest near Fort Bragg in the Sandhills region of North Carolina. A sudden freak snow storm blanketed this robust stand in early 2018 in the Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve. Long leaf Pine forests used to cover 90 million acres of the southeastern United States and now are reduced to three percent of the original territory. The climate crisis along with other human induced changes to the habitat and growing conditions of the long-leaf pine ecosystem will alter the future of these and other species of our planet. The resident endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers were silent while the trees stood sentinel to the aberrant weather.

  • Subtle tones in the open habitat of this Long-leaf Pine forest make for a delightful experience. Conservation efforts both protect the last stands of these slow growing pines from destruction and maintain them by fire.

  • This long-leaf pine froest near the low lying coast of North Carolina is dotted with bodies of open water in a variety of sizes.

  • A Blue bird flies through the open habit of a long-leaf pine forest. Birds can fly easily through the open understory. The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker only lives in these forests within communal groups that cooperate to jointly raise their young.

  • Many long-leaf pine forests are managed to include access for recreation and nature enthusiasts. Pine needles and occasional oak leaves make up the leaf litter between wiregrass tufts and trails. Fire management disallows competing oak trees to take up the midstory and grow taller to compete with the pines. This means open park-like vistas are the byproduct, for conserving long-leaf pine forests. These coserved areas are enjoyed by people and the Red-cockaded woodpeckers that only nest in living long-leaf pines and eschew areas with oaks.

  • Snow and pine needles lie cradled in a burned out tree trunk. Long-leaf pine forests are reliant on fire to keep scrub oak, and other species at bay to keep the delicate balance between wiregrass understory open with tall and straight pines above to keep the midgrowth area open and conducive for thriving bird populations. Most mature long-leaf pines can take the brief intense period of a burn within a forest that does not have too much undergrowth to feed the flames. Nowadays humans manage these fires.

  • Long-leaf pines reflect in surface water, surrounded by the wiregrass ecosystem in the sandhills region of North Carolina. Species diversity and water quality depend on adequate space and a variety of functioning ecosystems for community health. Long leaf pine forests used to cover 90 million acres of the southeastern United States and now are reduced to three percent of the original territory. Climate change along with other human induced changes to the habitat and growing conditions of the long-leaf pine ecosystem will alter the future of these and other species of our planet. Each community can offer reflection on what we now have to lose.

  • Looking up from a trail, tall straight trunks of mature long-leaf pine show why they were so sought after by the shipping industry. These days loblolly pine have replaced them within the lumber industry, only because they grow more quickly. Insects and diseases can infest loblolly pines, but for now they have left the long-leafs alone.

  • Areas under a healthy long-leaf pine forest provide long views within the woods. Many species thrive here including Bryan Fox squirrels and the Saint Francis'Satyr butterfly. In winter the color palette is subdued with browns and tans.

  • Scrub oaks will germinate and grow in the light filled long-leaf pine forest. The shade of the trees blocks too much light for the long-leaf to germinate and thrive. The leaves on the forest floor from oaks and on trees can create a hotter fire in a burn. If the forest has too many oaks the long-leaf pines do not survive the blaze. Otherwise the pines can withstand a quick fire with just the tinder from the grasses.

  • The grasses that predominate under a long-leaf pine forest are bunchgrasses that carry fire quickly across the area below the pines. When oaks start to take hold, a fire crossing the area intensifies from the increase in leaf-litter and keeps the midstory of competing trees down. Billowing tufts and drifts of grasses add to the magical nature of these forests.

  • Young long-leaf pines covered in snow in the Weymouth Woods resemble Truffula trees from the the DR Seuss book "The Lorax". As seedlings the long needles of the pines almost look like grasses, then they surge upward to a gangly stage where the length of the needles don't match the stature of the trunks.

  • The dark charred scars on the long-leaf pine trunks show that the wind was blowing from the same direction as this snowy day.

  • The red-cockaded woodpeckers raise young in communal groups made up of the breeding pair and most often sons of the breeding male. They keep very social company with frequent calling. They make their nest cavities in trees that are older than 80 years old. Their food source is mostly insects that feed and live under the scaling bark of the long-leaf pine.

  • Reflected light and dark at dusk glows in the forest.

  • Are we witnessing the sunset on long-leaf pine forests? Near Beaufort North Carolina in the Southeastern US a fragment of this ecologically significant forest exists in between roadways and strip-malls.