Episode 7: The Tree that Built the South

Ben and Louann Williams are renovating a forest.

A handful of years ago, the Williams bought 3,400 acres in northeast Florida from a major timber company. It was an investment with perks: they wanted to grow trees, spend some time outside, and make a return. In researching land management, they decided to adopt a holistic approach to forestry, including selective harvesting instead of clear-cutting, conducting controlled burns, and reestablishing the longleaf pine.

 Wild blueberries in bloom in the Williams' woods. Photo by Daniel Ward.

Wild blueberries in bloom in the Williams' woods. Photo by Daniel Ward.

 Bear tracks near the Williams' border. Photo by DCW.

Bear tracks near the Williams' border. Photo by DCW.

 Williams' dog Molly runs behind Louann's golf cart. Photo by DCW.

Williams' dog Molly runs behind Louann's golf cart. Photo by DCW.

Historically, longleaf pine was the pine of the Southern United States. The ecosystem once dominated the Southern landscape from southeast Virginia, extending down through Florida, and west to Texas. Early settlers and naturalists marveled at the majestic landscape helmed by the longleaf pine. According to the Longleaf Alliance, the longleaf “was literally the tree that built the South.” But over 150 years of human settlement, activity, and exploitation, the longleaf pine ecosystem fragmented and waned. Today less than 1% of the South’s natural stands remain, representing one of the world's most severe cases of habitat loss.

So what’s to be gained by renewing an ecosystem that has almost disappeared? For Ben and Louann, a longleaf forest offers a diverse habitat for native plants and animals, provides a robust hunting ground, and produces quality pine for harvest. The Williams have already planted several of their acres in longleaf pine—the young trees look a lot like feather dusters, with shiny green needles shooting up towards the sky and cascading out—though it'll be some years before they're ready to cut. Perhaps private landowners like Ben and Louann will serve as a model for balancing a functioning longleaf pine ecosystem with profits.

 Adolescent longleaf pines on the Williams property. Photo by DCW.

Adolescent longleaf pines on the Williams property. Photo by DCW.

 Fire crew sets fire during a prescribed burn at the Williams'. Photo by DCW.

Fire crew sets fire during a prescribed burn at the Williams'. Photo by DCW.

 Fire takes hold during prescribed burn at the Williams'. Photo by DCW.

Fire takes hold during prescribed burn at the Williams'. Photo by DCW.

We’re not crazed tree huggers. If you can produce income, provide a place for the guys that love to hunt to hunt, have a place for the animals—if you can do all of those things, why not? Why not?
— Ben Williams

The Longleaf Alliance is a fantastic and extensive resource for anything and everything longleaf. Here's a short manifesto on prescribed burning and fire ecology in pine forests from Mississippi State University's Extension Service, as well as a case for converting planted slash and loblolly to longleaf from Clemson University's Extension Forester. Now we're getting to some of my favorites: a gripping article about the roots of ecological conservation in Southern longleaf pine forests, Janisse Ray's gorgeous ode to the longleaf, and Lawrence Early's environmental history of the longleaf.

This month's episode is made possible in part by the fine folks at the Southern Documentary Project at the University of Mississippi. Thank you SouthDocs! And dear listeners: be sure to check out the trailers forLongleaf, their upcoming film about the South's longleaf pine forests—they're beautiful.

Listen to this episode via the SoundCloud player at the top of the page. Subscribe to Watershed via iTunes. Listen to us via SoundCloud. Connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.