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The Big Picture

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The average American's view of the natural communities of the Southeastern U.S. is that it is comprised mainly of swamps, alligators and big, old moss-hung cypress trees.   On the contrary to this view, when early explorers visited the southeastern region they saw "a vast forest of the most stately pine trees that can be imagined, planted by nature at a moderate distance. . . enameled with a variety of flowering shrubs."  Fire defined where the longleaf pine forest was found and fostered an ecosystem diverse in plants and animals.

Longleaf pine's domain was vast.  By all accounts, the longleaf pine forest dominated the southern landscape.  Starting in southwest Virginia, the longleaf pine forest stretched southward through nine states eventually stopping in east Texas (over 140,000 square miles).   Unlike today, other southern pine species such as loblolly and slash pine were mostly relegated to areas where fire did not burn frequently (such as the edges of streams and ponds).

The primeval pine forest seen by early explorers to the southeastern U.S. shared several fundamental characteristics:

  • Tall, majestic, and ancient stands dominated by a single species of tree - the Longleaf Pine;
  • A conspicuous lack of midstory trees and shrubs presented a scenic vista through the forest;
  • A well developed ground layer, dominated by bunch grasses helped to create a manicured park-like appearance;
  • A high diversity of plants in the ground layer;
  • Numerous wildlife species that were dependent upon the open pine forest;
  • Frequent fires that skimmed across the ground's surface acted as the thread which held the longleaf pine forest together; and
  • Found across a variety of habitat types.

For countless generations, cultures were both transformed by and helped to transform the longleaf piney woods.  However, starting about 150 years ago, overexploitation of the longleaf pine forest accelerated tremendously and the face of the southern landscape changed radically.

In this section of the website we will learn more about the longleaf pine itself and then explore its ecosystem.  See the “Past & Present” part of this website to learn more about the history that this tree and its ecosystem played in the development of our country.

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