The Great Comeback

Virginia’s longleaf pine had all but disappeared, but efforts are underway to restore the forests. 

The male cones of a longleaf pine prior to releasing pollen.

Photo courtesy of Robert B. Clontz / The Nature Conservancy

When John Smith landed at Jamestown in 1607, he was greeted by a forest of longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) that occupied more than 90 million acres stretching from the James River south to present-day Florida and west to Texas. 

The tall, straight form of this tree was perfect for the masts, poles, pilings, and lumber so crucial to America’s largest shipbuilding industry and associated enterprises that still comprise a critical part of Virginia’s economy today. But, by the year 2000, fewer than 200 mature longleaf pine trees remained in the Old Dominion.

Now, thanks to partnerships among state and federal agencies, colleges, environmental organizations, and private citizens, restoration efforts are underway across 13,000 acres in the Commonwealth. “I feel like I’m caring for this heirloom that was such a part of everyday life, that most people didn’t even think of it as the treasure it was,” says Rebecca Wilson, a restoration specialist with the state’s Natural Heritage Program at the South Quay Natural Area Preserve outside of Franklin. “This restoration is about passing down something of value and making sure future generations understand the story.”

Bring back the forest and with it come many of the more than 600 state and federally listed rare plant and animal species that declined with the ecosystem. At The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve in Sussex County, the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, a species that co-evolved with the longleaf pine, has increased from a mere 14 birds to a healthy 70. 

“We know from the fossil record that this woodpecker has been around for at least 180,000 years,” says Brian van Eerden, the Conservancy’s program manager. “In just a fraction of that time, modern humans have pushed this bird and its forest to the brink. We can’t let these pieces of our natural heritage disappear,” he says. “Not in Virginia, not on our watch.”


This article originally appeared in our December 2018 issue.

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