Longleaf Pine Can Grow Legacy, Profitability

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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 pine straw. 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) partnered on a 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 worked together to assist private landowners to establish 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 only 1/30 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 and ship and building construction, in a period when this country was experiencing tremendous growth. In recent years, forests continue to be lost to urban development, unsustainable forestry practices, invasive species and suppressed fire in the landscape. Without fire, 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 that 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. They address one of the major barriers landowners face, 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 provides landowners with technical assistance, training, and help accessing resources where they are available.

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 N.C. Cooperative Extension Richmond County Center, 910-997-8255, with questions or for more information about the Sandhills Longleaf Pine Project.