by Whit Gibbons

December 20, 2009

No environmental issue this century has raised as much public controversy, hype from all sides, and political maneuvering as global warming, aka climate change. A set of private email messages recently acquired from computers in Britain has further exacerbated the disagreements, leading skeptics to declare that "global warming is a hoax" and scientists to declare that "the hoax is a hoax."

Supposing, for the sake of this column, that global climate change is a genuine threat, a recent publication by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) sets forth some intriguing ideas about a tree that might help ameliorate the ill effects of such change. The article is titled "Standing Tall: How Restoring Longleaf Pine Can Help Prepare the Southeast for Global Warming."

The longleaf pine, one of the great trees of the southern United States, is impressive in many ways. My daughter brought over a longleaf pine needle she found last week in her yard. It was 18 inches long! Longleaf pine cones are also appreciably bigger than other southern pines. A friend from up north filled her suitcase with cones from our front yard for her return home before Christmas one year. As she explained, "If I tried to buy these in New York City they would cost $10 apiece."

On the disheartening side, exploitation of the trees for timber in the previous century resulted in elimination of 97 percent of the country's longleaf pine habitat. The forests once covered 90 million acres of the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plain. The destruction of this once abundant native tree is reprehensible, not something timber companies and others involved in its loss should be proud of. Of course, some might argue that all U.S. residents were complicit in that loss and therefore "involved" at some level.

According to the NWF article, a chance for redemption is on the horizon. Recolonization of the southern landscape with longleaf pine would be beneficial because such forests "are naturally resilient to climate extremes in the Southeast." The publication states that "global warming puts southeastern forests at risk, . . . [and] re-establishing longleaf pine ecosystems will benefit all Americans by improving climate resilience, economic opportunity, and ecosystem vitality."

The article states that as a consequence of "global warming pollution," the Southeast will be the recipient of numerous changes in climate, such as increases in environmental temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns (with "more severe storms" and drought in different areas), and a rise in sea levels. The cumulative effects of the climate changes are expected to stress natural communities and ecosystems at many levels. The article emphasizes that "communities and governments [will be forced] to rethink how we manage our forests, water supply, and other natural resources" as we are confronted with more frequent and more severe weather events. It makes the case that among native trees, longleaf pines are notably long-lived, persist under both wet and dry environmental conditions, and are among the most fire-tolerant trees in the Southeast. Other desirable traits of longleaf pines include being more resistant to insect pests and producing a wood that is hardy and long-lasting.

But Ken McLeod, a forest ecologist with the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, notes that although "longleaf was once the dominant pine in the Southeast, it has largely been replaced by loblolly" because loblolly was "a species much easier to grow" as a commercial crop. "Longleaf's beneficial characteristics are most strongly expressed at older ages, well beyond what a normal silvicultural rotation length would be." Such economic considerations will no doubt come into play in proposed reforestation projects when the issue of balancing commercial pine production against restoration of natural longleaf pine habitats is addressed.

To find out about efforts to promote replanting of longleaf pine and enhancing forest management programs, including incentives for private property owners, see "Official Release of the Range-wide Conservation Plan for Longleaf Pine" at www.americaslongleaf.org. My daughter and I enjoy having specimens of these magnificent trees in our yards. So without even putting the question of global warming into the mix, we think returning a substantial portion of the landscape to longleaf pine forests seems like a good idea.

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