Texas Longleaf Team: How Fire Makes A Forest

Texas Longleaf Team

The Texas Longleaf Team was selected as a Texan by Nature 2021 Conservation Wrangler based on the project’s positive impact to people, prosperity, and natural resources. Through this partnership, TLT hopes to bring a broader awareness to the need for collaboration between industry and conservation organizations to fuel sustainable efforts across the state.

Through the program, Texan by Nature and TLT are working together to diversify funding and cost-sharing opportunities to fuel increased longleaf pine restoration on public and private land, expand TLT’s network of partners in longleaf pine significant restoration areas, quantify the social, economic, and environmental benefits of longleaf pine restoration, and enhance media visibility and brand continuity to improve the effectiveness of digital communications for a broader audience. TxN and TLT are excited to work together while fueling each other’s missions of expanding the awareness of conservation efforts across the state.

What is Longleaf Pine?

Longleaf pine is an evergreen conifer that was named for having the longest leaves of the eastern pine species. The needlelike leaves, which come in bundles of three, can grow up to 18 inches long. Longleaf pine seeds develop in cones and are dispersed by wind. When they fall to the ground, they must come in contact with soil to germinate. Historically, leaf litter and debris were cleared away by forest fires that were sparked during lightning storms. When the leaf litter is cleared this way, it opens up greater opportunities for longleaf pine seedlings to grow without competition from other species. When fire is suppressed, ground cover buildup prevents seeds from reaching the soil, and they cannot germinate. The seeds that are able to take root undergo an interesting life cycle that differs from most other conifers. Rather than spending its first few years growing in height, the longleaf pine goes through a grass stage.

grass stage longleaf
Longleaf pine in the grass stage.

From the surface, the grass-stage plant appears to be a large clump of needles that grows very slowly and only in small amounts. All the while, the plant is hard at work below the surface. During the grass stage, the longleaf pine starts to develop its central root, called a taproot, which will be up to 12 feet long at maturity. For the tree to grow beyond this grass stage, it needs fire. Once heat is applied, the tree sprouts quickly to five or six feet, its sapling phase. After the grass stage, longleaf pines begin to grow in height. Drawing from soil made nutrient rich from ash, the tree will flourish. Both mature trees and grass-stage seedlings are not only fire-resistant, but dependent on fire to stimulate growth and control competing woody and herbaceous vegetation. The lifespan of a longleaf pine spans several centuries. These slow-growing trees can live for over 300 years and may take up to half that time to reach full size.

With the rise of westward expansion and technological improvements in transportation and manufacturing in the late-1800s came the loss of millions of acres of the natural wooded grassland ecosystems that dominated the landscape from Texas to Virginia. These wooded grasslands, specifically the longleaf pine ecosystem, are globally important for migratory birds, resident wildlife, a host of rare or declining plants and animals, carbon storage, water filtration, and hold a great amount of cultural significance in East Texas. Less than 2 percent of the original East Texas landscape of longleaf pine remains. The Texas Longleaf Team is a group of individuals, organizations and agencies that share a passion for this iconic species.

The History of Longleaf Pine in Texas

Male red-cockaded woodpecker

Early Southeast Texans found sustenance in these forests in the form of plentiful game, such as deer, turkey, raccoon, and squirrel, and later built their local economies from valuable forest products like lumber and naval stores derived from the sap of pines. Abundance of both game and economic opportunity were unrivaled in the prevalent longleaf pine forests of the area. By the end of the 20th century, these forests were characterized by enormous trees set in a prairie-like understory of diverse native plants.

Longleaf was once so abundant that it seemed like an inexhaustible resource to early settlers and figured significantly in the industrial forestry of the period, owing to its high quality fiber, huge diameter, and tall, straight bole. Most of the longleaf pine, transported across the country for building materials, was gone by the 1920s. Rather than replanting the longleaf, foresters replaced it with faster-growing pines that would produce greater short-term economic yield.

Restoration of the longleaf pine ecosystem has become a major conservation priority in recent years. More than 30 endangered and threatened species, including red-cockaded woodpeckers and eastern indigo snakes, rely on the longleaf ecosystem for their habitat. Additionally, longleaf pines are more resilient than other southeastern pines. They can withstand severe windstorms, resist pests, tolerate wildfires and drought, and protect water resources.

How Longleaf Pine is Managed Today

The historic longleaf pine ecosystem benefitted from natural fire events, many times as a result of lightning strikes and subsequent wildfires. These frequent fires would burn under the trees, cleaning up litter and woody vegetation, and promoting the growth of a highly diverse and beneficial grass and forb plant community. Today, managers utilize prescribed fire to mimic the natural fire cycles that maintained these systems.

Proper management of the longleaf system can prove beneficial to the ecosystem and economy. The 2013 Forest Ecosystem Services Report generated by Texas A&M Forest Service reports that woodland pine ecosystems in Texas, approximately 9.98 million acres in East Texas, can generate $2,739 per acre per year in ecosystem service benefits, totaling $18.62 billion per year across the ecosystem. Estimated acreage values for water, carbon, biodiversity, and culture within the woodland pine ecosystems are $671.01, $90, $155, and $1,823 per year, respectively. In addition to timber income, private longleaf pine landowners can diversify their profits through utilization of carbon and water offset sales, recreational leases, and other ecosystem service benefit offsets provided at the state or federal level.

Further research suggests that investing in the maintenance of longleaf pine more effectively sequesters and stores carbon and can protect water resources more effectively than other southern pine species. Scott Phillips, a State Forester of the South Carolina Forestry Commission, writes that working forests, or timberlands, that yield forest products have demonstrated greater carbon sequestration potential over non-working forests. Trees naturally sequester carbon by absorbing it into their mass and roots during photosynthesis, preventing the greenhouse gas from entering and warming the atmosphere. Younger trees are especially efficient at sequestering carbon from the air because they are actively growing and processing CO2 at faster rates than trees that are at maturity.  While larger, older trees may have more carbon stored, young trees sequester more additional carbon, both aspects being very important in addressing climate change.

unmanaged longleaf
Unmanaged longleaf forest

Additionally, the frequent fire in a longleaf forest, stimulates the active growth of native grasses and other herbaceous vegetation in the understory, creating another layer of sequestration that a non-working forest does not produce. Because the South has a larger contingent of private working forest owners than anywhere in the country, Texas and other states are uniquely positioned to lead the way toward net-zero emissions. When a forest is not properly managed, there are associated risks and costs. To the right is a photo of mature longleaf that is in desperate need of fire. In fact, it has been without fire for so long that the landowner is going to need to implement much more expensive practices (herbicide and/or mechanical treatment) in order for it to be conducive to fire.

Proper management of longleaf pine forests can also keep drinking water safe, reliable, and affordable. America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative reports that healthy, managed forests provide natural filtration of precipitation and stormwater runoff resulting in cleaner water reaching drinking water consumers. This natural filtration lowers treatment costs and enables utilities to avoid building or upgrading expensive treatment infrastructure, keeping water affordable for customers. Compared with other forest types in the South, longleaf pine forest management has distinct benefits for water quality and water yield. Longleaf pine management practices such as prescribed fire and thinning can reduce water demand, increase water yield, and improve water quality over time by retaining nutrients and preventing soil loss. Forest stewardship and protection are important tools to help ensure water quantity and quality. Longleaf pine forests can be part of the solution because they contribute to healthy watersheds and safe and reliable drinking water. These forests also provide many other benefits including forest resiliency, erosion control, flood mitigation, recreation, fish and wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, strong economies and forest markets.

History of Fire on the Landscape

Nature and humans have a long history of shaping the longleaf ecosystem and its ecological processes through fire. Natural fires were historically ignited by lightning, beginning in late spring. These fires were typically of low intensity and high frequency, occurring every 2 -5 years on average, depending on available fuels. Native Americans began applying fire over 10,000 years ago to manage the landscape for food and game, medicinal purposes, and many other reasons. For millennia, fires burned across the southeastern landscape until they reached wetlands or until they were extinguished by rain. Today, longleaf forests in the Southeast are fragmented, and various land use changes have altered existing fire patterns. In addition to these physical changes, rhetoric and narrative surrounding the frequent natural fires led the public to believe all forest fires are bad. Due to these changes, prescribed fire is an even more important tool for managing the forest.

Texas Longleaf Implementation Team
Forest managers conducting a prescribed burn

The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas recently reinstated the use of prescribed fire to promote the growth and health of their longleaf pine forests. Pauly Denetclaw of the Texas Observer writes about the importance of longleaf pine to the tribe and how fire has been a part of the historical landscape. Currently, the tribe is working to preserve the forest and grow additional trees on 400 acres of tribal land. In an ecosystem that needs fire much like the Amazon rainforest needs rain, the actions of the tribe could decide the future of the longleaf pine. Longleaf pine doesn’t like competition, so the tree rains pine needles down onto competing shrubs in the hopes of a spark that will turn to flames and take out competitors. The thick bark of the tree is usually unfazed by flame, and the burn patterns of needles on the forest floor—how fire jumps from one pile of needles to the next—shows researchers just how the tree manages competition. The Alabama-Coushatta tribe will continue to do prescribed burns to further their efforts of longleaf restoration and preserve the cultural importance of trees.

How Does a Burn Work?

Fires are critical to longleaf pine because it controls competition by removing other woody vegetation that smothers young longleaf pine seedlings and helps control disease that stunts seedling growth. Prescribed fire allows the longleaf pine seedlings to bolt from the grass-stage sooner than they would without fire and overtop the competing vegetation. Landowners with remnant stands as well as brand new plantings of longleaf are implementing prescribed fire throughout East Texas. They know that longleaf pine, fire, and a healthy ecosystem go hand in hand.

“I like longleaf because I like fire. My main focus on my land is walking through the woods; I love prescribed fire because it makes for beautiful woods to walk through.”

-Rufus Duncan, Newton County Longleaf Landowner.

rufus duncan longleaf
Longleaf pine on Rufus Duncan’s land

Because restoring fire to a landscape has so many benefits, the hard work by landowners and natural resources managers of East Texas longleaf pine stands has had a significant impact on the region. Fire was commonplace in longleaf pine savannas historically and it is no different in today’s management of new longleaf pine stands.

“When you account for the 4 National Forests in East Texas, multiple state, federal and tribal partners, private forestry contractors, and individual forest landowners there is an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 acres of prescribed fire occurring annually in this region”

“Smoke on the horizon has become a welcome sight in many of these piney woods communities. The public now understands the importance of periodic fire to protect them from future wildfires and the restoration of longleaf pine has been a huge asset as we worked to build this fire culture back into our communities.”

-Andy McCrady, Texas A&M Forest Service- Program Coordinator.

Fire was commonplace in longleaf pine savannas historically and it is no different in today’s management of new longleaf pine stands. Most new plantings start with a site preparation burn in late summer or fall in conjunction with other activities like herbicide and mechanical vegetation or soil disturbance. Once the trees are in the ground, fire is commonly used the next winter after planting and sometimes for multiple years to control competition and promote stimulation of the vertical growth stage. Once young longleaf begin vertical growth, fire is often carefully applied on a 2 to 3 year rotation that balances control of competition while avoiding damage to vigorously growing terminal buds in mid-spring. Once trees begin to reach larger diameter and undergo regular mechanical thinnings, prescribed fire is utilized in a wider range of seasons and time intervals based on the objectives of the landowner and individual site conditions. A general guideline many land managers use to mimic a natural fire cycle is 18 to 24 month between burns, with a focus on burning between January 1st and June 30th.

The Texas A&M Forest Service provides informational guides to educate the public and inform landowners on the process of prescribed burns. See the outlined steps here and visit the attached links for detailed information about safely conducting a prescribed burn. It is important to note that in Texas, landowners that utilize the services of a Texas Department of Agriculture- Certified and Insured Prescribed Burn Manager are protected under state law from liability for a prescribed burn on their property.

longleaf right after burn and 6months later
Pine Island [Left]: Day after prescribed burn [Right]: 6 months after prescribed burn

Texas Longleaf Team shares their passion for restoration of the longleaf ecosystem in Texas through landowner and industry outreach and education, technical support, and cost-share programs that assist landowners in implementation of prescribed fire, planting and other beneficial management practices. The mission of TLT is to promote the maintenance and restoration of the longleaf pine ecosystem on private and public forestlands, including its cultural and economic values, through a collaborative network of diverse stakeholders and working groups.

Learn more about the longleaf pine on the Texas Longleaf Landscapes Story Map and Texas Longleaf Team website.

The National Wildlife Federation- Longleaf Pine
The National Wildlife Federation- Longleaf Pine: Life History
Texas Longleaf Implementation Team- History and Importance of Longleaf Pine in Texas
The National Wildlife Federation- Longleaf Pine: Conservation
Southern Group of State Foresters-Can Cutting Down Trees Help Fight Climate Change?
America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative- Longleaf Pine – A Tall Drink of Water
Texas Observer-  How the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe Use Fire to Save the Longleaf Pine