Longleaf Pine Can Grow Legacy, Profitability

— Written By and last updated by Leeann Crump

Richmond County is one of six NC counties that make up the region called the Sandhills. The Sandhills ecosystem is a harsh yet beautiful environment, representing an ancient dune system dividing the Piedmont from the Coastal Plain region of the state. The Sandhills region is made up of deep, sandy soils that are nutrient poor, with little water holding capacity. Plants and animals in this ecosystem evolved to be dependent on the frequent natural fires that occurred here. I often receive calls from people interested in knowing what they can grow on their land to make it “pay” – or at least offset some of the property taxes.

Farming in the Sandhills is extremely challenging because of the unforgiving growing conditions. For many people, with limited time and money for tractors, irrigation systems, and other farming equipment, growing longleaf pine may be the best option for managing their land productively. Longleaf pine is a slow growing, native pine tree that is highly adapted to the Sandhills’ harsh conditions. Longleaf pine timber is stronger and in many ways superior to loblolly pine, and the tree produces what can be a secondary source of income in pinestraw. Longleaf pine also provides critical infrastructure in one of the most unique environments in the world, one with an amazing diversity of plants and animals when properly managed.

Sandhills Area Land Trust (SALT), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and N.C. Cooperative Extension (NCCE) have partnered on a new project called the Sandhills Longleaf Pine Project (SLPP) to help restore, improve and expand the longleaf pine forests that make the Sandhills so special. Thanks to a $150,000 grant from National Fish and Wildlife, the team is working together to assist private landowners achieve their forestry goals around establishment of longleaf pine. The SLPP is part of an initiative in the southeastern US to re-establish longleaf pine to its original range from Virginia to Texas. Today’s approximately 3 million acres of longleaf pine forests is a fraction of the 90 million acres that spanned the region 150 years ago. The ancient longleaf pine forests were decimated during the 1800’s from the demand for turpentine production, ship building, and construction, in a period when this country was experiencing tremendous growth. In recent years, forests continue to be lost due to urban development, unsustainable forestry practices, invasive species and lack of managed fire on the landscape, without which the longleaf pine ecosystem cannot survive. In 2007, the America’s Longleaf Initiative was formed, and published America’s Longleaf Range-Wide Conservation Plan. This plan targets the NC Sandhills as one of the “Significant Geographic Areas” for longleaf pine conservation. This plan also acknowledges one of the biggest challenges to restoring an expansive longleaf pine ecosystem is that fifty percent of the potential acreage for longleaf pine recovery exists on private lands, much of which is not being actively managed for longleaf.

The Sandhills Longleaf Pine Project combines the talents and resources of the three differing agencies. Working together, SALT, NRCS, and NCCE provide landowners with the tools they need to restore longleaf pine to the region. One of the major barriers landowners face is accessing resources and support for implementing longleaf pine management practices. These needs include preparing forest management plans, applying for cost share programs, and conducting prescribed burns.

The SLPP will provide landowners with technical assistance, training and help accessing resources where they are available. Over the past month, a series of landowner meetings at Extension offices gave participants individual face time with agency personnel involved in longleaf pine. Agencies in attendance included NRCS, US Fish and Wildlife, National Wild Turkey Federation, and the NC Forest Service, among others. For those landowners who are interested in hands-on management, field days and workshops led by the NCSU Extension Forestry will enable landowners to develop the skills to implement their own management practices, such doing their own prescribed burning. These events will also provide opportunities for landowners to network with both forestry professionals as well as other experienced landowners for mentorship and peer-based information sharing.

Longleaf pine represents an opportunity for landowners to grow a family legacy with real financial benefits, while restoring the environmental heritage of the region. Contact Paige Burns at the Extension office with questions or for more information about the Sandhills Longleaf Pine Project.