The National Wildlife Federation

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Restoring Southern Forests for Wildlife

To protect wildlife, you must first protect their habitat—and NWF does just that in the forested regions of the Southeast.

The Southeast is a critical forest region both ecologically and economically. Stretching across the sandy, low-lying soils of the Coastal Plain, the gently sloping clay soils of the Piedmont, and the steep sloping terrains of the southern Appalachian Mountains, the forests of the southeastern United States are widely recognized for its incredible variety of plants and animals. Much of the region is also working forestland and it produces more forest products than any other region of the country, contributing the well-being of local and regional economies by continuously providing a renewable, essential resource.

Southern forests range from cypress trees in the swamps, pines and hardwoods across the region, to spruce and firs in higher elevations. These forests support more than 158 mammals, 504 birds and 178 amphibians. However, contemporary forests in the South do not resemble what European settlers would have discovered centuries ago or even what our grandparents would have witnessed. Intensive land conversion and evolving forestry management practices have altered southern forests. As urbanization continues in the South, experts have forecasted a loss of 11 to 23 million acres of forests will occur by 2060. The National Wildlife Federation remains optimistic that, through collective efforts, we can achieve a transformation that safeguards forests and wildlife.

The National Wildlife Federation’s Southeast Forestry program works with landowners and other partner organizations to help restore and improve privately-owned forested land, while also working to ensure good stewardship is rewarded. Our vision is for all types of the region’s forests to be managed such that they continue to provide high-quality wildlife habitat, abundant forest products, and a way of life for all generations to come.

Why Private Lands?

People and wildlife alike depend on forests to live. They provide essential products and services such as food, clean drinking water, shelter, a place to rest or hunt. These trees supply the oxygen that we need and the materials for products used everyday. More than 30 percent of the earth’s land surface area is covered by forests, and two thirds are working forests. In the US, much of forestland is privately owned, and in the Southeast, over 90% of forests are private. It is important that these forests are healthy and continue to provide a livelihood for landowners, otherwise these lands are at risk of conversion to agricultural uses or development. Our programs provide guidance to landowners to keep their forests healthy and valuable through the use of forest management and prescribed burning systems.

Unknown Hero: Longleaf Pine

The south is home to many iconic trees that provide habitat for wildlife, but one of the most valuable landscapes to wildlife is the longleaf pine. The coniferous tree can live for 300-400 years, and has needlelike leaves nearly eighteen inches long. Longleaf pine forests have a more open canopy, allowing sunlight onto the forest floor for grasses and herbs to grow for wildlife to live and feed. This openness creates a forest floor where plants such as many-flowered grass pinks, trumpet pitcher plants, Venus flytraps, lavender ladies, and pineland bogbuttons grow. In fact, up to fifty species of wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and ferns can be found in a single square yard, providing food and shelter for a variety of wildlife. Some researchers estimate that the longleaf pine ecosystem is one of the most diverse outside of the Tropics.

Longleaf forests also contribute to a healthy environment by providing clean air and water sources, creating buffers from wildfire, and mitigating damage from hurricanes.

Longleaf pine forests used to dominate from east Texas to north Florida all the way to Virginia. Unfortunately, logging, development and agriculture has reduced this habitat to less than 5% of its original 90 million acres. However, a group of partners, including NWF, are working together to restore this iconic landscape in the Southeast, and since 2009, we have collectively restored over 1.2 million acres.

Wildlife in a Longleaf Pine Forest

The biggest threat facing wildlife is habitat loss, and the South is no exception from its peril. Due to the open canopy that allows native plants to flourish, longleaf pine habitats are some of the most biodiverse and important natural areas in the United States. Twenty-nine species on the Federal threatened or endangered lists are found in these forests, however these pine forests are one of the most endangered landscapes in North America. Restoring longleaf forests could help a wide range of species including:

Restoration Initiatives

The National Wildlife Federation’s Southeast Forestry Program is dedicated to projects that protect and restore forests and wildlife habitats throughout the region, and longleaf pine restoration remains a keystone to our program. Our goal is to restore 20,000 acres by 2025, contributing to the 8 million goal set by America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative (ALRI).

We have been fortunate to work alongside many other organizations including ALRI, which is guided by the Longleaf Partnership Council, and our affiliates to develop and implement strategies to bring back this iconic forest to the south through several initiatives.

Private landowners are important to the success of restoring longleaf pine in the South. Currently, more than 85% of southern forests are held by private landowners. Working in coordination with our affiliates, we work with private landowners to replant longleaf species in existing forested areas, and encouraging the conversion of retired agricultural lands back to longleaf forests.

Alabama - Since 2007, we have worked side by side with the Alabama Wildlife Federation to plant, manage, and restore over 13,825 acres of longleaf pine forests on private lands.

Florida - We’re coordinating with the Florida Wildlife Federation to plant and manage more than 4,000 acres of longleaf pine on private land by 2022.

Georgia - The National Wildlife Federation and the Georgia Wildlife Federation are working with private landowners in more than fourteen counties to establish new longleaf pine stands and improve wildlife habitat within existing longleaf forests, with a restoration goal of 2,000 acres by 2021.

Fire plays a critical role in the entire longleaf pine ecosystem, which isn’t surprising since longleaf forests evolved in a region known for its frequent lightning. Fire was discovered to be the essential element in providing calcium for improved breeding in red-cockaded woodpeckers. Fire also results in suitable nest sites for ground-nesting birds such as Bachmann’s sparrow and open spaces essential for gopher tortoises to forage and dig burrows. Low-intensity controlled fires can clear away brush for these species and keep the forest open by suppressing the growth of hardwood species such as oak and tulip that could stifle longleaf seedlings.

Without periodic fires, the flora and fauna adapted to longleaf pine ecosystems cannot flourish, so conducting prescribed burns is integral to forest management for longleaf pines. Through educational workshops and other outreach activities, the National Wildlife Federation is educating landowners on prescribed burns for long leaf. To learn more on outreach with landowners on the effectiveness and implementation procedures to conduct a prescribed burn, visit our program SandHill Prescribed Burn Association.

Balancing economic, ecological and social values is crucial to restoration goals. The harvest of freshly-fallen pine needles is a growing industry in the southeastern United States. With an increasing demand, pine straw can be a valuable source of income for forest landowners. However, pine needles also serve an important role in the forest from protecting soil and cycling nutrients. We’re working with landowners to establish a balance (pdf) between harvesting of pine straw and preserving the ecological needs of wildlife.

Weather extremes such as temperature increases, shifts in precipitation, more severe storms, and other climate changes are stressing natural ecosystems and forcing communities to rethink how we manage our forests, water supply, and other natural resources.

Fortunately, longleaf pine ecosystems are naturally resilient to climate extremes in the Southeast. Longleaf pine grows under very dry and very wet conditions, is tolerant of and even dependent on frequent fire, is more resilient to wind and severe storms, and is more resistant to beetle infestations likely to be exacerbated by warmer and drier conditions. Because other pine species in the Southeast may be more susceptible to the changes, longleaf pine’s high tolerance makes it a desirable choice for forest management options.

Due to the commitment of our partners and other organizations, longleaf pine is making a comeback. Acreage has extended to nearly 4.7 million acres, which is a first known increase since the 1990s.

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Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 53 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

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