ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Southeastern longleaf pines were the backbone of the Industrial Revolution. That building boom, continued development and many other factors is what conservation groups say caused the longleaf pine forest population to dwindle down to less than five percent of its original landscape.
Builders used the trees -- resistant to insect damage, flooding and drought and fire adaptive -- to build historic buildings, ships and the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. It has been more than 150 years since the end of the Civil War, when construction crews started using longleaf from Florida up to Virginia, but the pine still supports architecture today, according to a 2015 New York Times story.
Florida is home to more than half of the total longleaf pine ecosystem.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and several conservation organizations are collaborating with landowners in a new effort to restore the crucial habitats created by longleaf pines that are home to thousands of plants, birds and other species. It's part of a larger project from Virginia down to Florida to restore the pines.
This spring the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Florida Forest Service sent out a call to Florida landowners of more than 5 acres in 25 counties offering up to $10,000 per year if they plant longleaf pine seeds and maintain the trees.
The Nature Conservancy is providing some of the funding for the program through a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant and has a goal to restore and grow the longleaf pine forests to 8 million acres in the next seven years. They have 3 million acres to go.
“It’s not the trees in and of itself that we care about, it’s the habitats,” said TNC wildlife biologist Cheryl Millett, who manages the Tiger Creek Preserve.
Gopher tortoise, red-cockaded woodpeckers, indigo snakes, salamanders, quail and turkeys all use habitats in longleaf pine forests — and that’s not even brushing the surface or the insects.
Restoring the Florida native trees isn’t as simple as plant and repeat. The trees take as long as 100 years to grow, and old trees are necessary to create habitats certain animals rely on, Millett said.
“The woodpeckers need trees with a little bit of heart rot in them so they can make their nest cavities,” Millett said.
The restoration effort is also about kicking out non-native species. After the Industrial Revolution depleted the longleaf pine forests, Millett explains, people didn't want to wait 80 to 100 years for more pines to grow and instead planted non-native trees.
"We lost more than we lost in wetlands," Millett said of Florida's pine forests. "Everybody talks about wetlands and how huge they are. This is an even more rare habitat."
Florida landowners are already participating in the Longleaf Pine Private Landowner Incentive Program, and Millett said there is a bigger incentive than the initial funding they can get from planting the trees.
Participating landowners can use the pines to supplement their income if they harvest some trees before they are full grown.
"There’s a lot of interest, some may just have 20 acres, but once they get it, they say 'Okay, I want to learn about this and find out how I can be a good steward of this land,'" Millett said.
Who can apply
Any private landowner in the following counties with more than 5 acres, but not more than 5,000 acres of forestland: Alachua, Bay, Bradford, Brevard, Calhoun, Citrus, Clay, Franklin,
Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Jefferson, Lake, Leon, Levy, Liberty, Marion, Orange,
Putnam, Seminole, Sumter, Volusia, Wakulla and Washington.
The application deadline for this year is July 13. Apply at FloridaForestService.com.
How to get involved
Partnering with the Florida Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy is hosting workshops for people interested in the program. Visit Nature.org for more information.
Millett recommends landowners should contact their local forester about managing the pines and controlled burning. A local forester can come out to the property and help begin the application process. Find your county forester here.