Authors hope book helps bring new dawn for longleaf

Published 12:21 am Friday, February 22, 2013

The authors of a new book on the longleaf forest, “Longleaf, Far As The Eye Can See,” last night talked about the importance of the stately pine to the South, and to the forest ecosystem.

The event was co-sponsored by LBW Community College and the Lower Alabama Arts Coalition, and held in the Andalusia City Hall last night.

Rhett Johnson signs a copy of “Longleaf” for Tim Mersmann.

Rhett Johnson signs a copy of “Longleaf” for Tim Mersmann.

Rhett Johnson, co-founder of the Longleaf Alliance and the former director of the Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center, said longleaf is the the forest that shaped and built the South. It once existed on an estimated 90 million acres at its peak, dominating an estimated 60 million acres, and was probably the largest area on the continent dominated by a single tree species. The longleaf forest stretched across most of the Southeast, from Virginia to Texas.

DeSoto’s chronicler wrote that the longleaf forests were at once an open forest and also a grassy plain, and that those in the expedition could ride their horses at full gallop through the forest. To see a video about the book, click here.

Today, there is only about 3 million acres of longleaf, Johnson said

The longleaf population was damaged by clear cutting, and by a change in attitude about fires, Johnson said. Before humans shared the longleaf habitat, lightning started fires and was the single largest cause of mortality of native trees. But it also cleared the underbrush, kept forests healthy, and carried the seeds to expand the forest.

In the mid-1900s, the attitude toward fires changed, among many things to affect longleaf.

When conservation programs were begun during and after the Great Depression, the federal government acquired clearcut land cheaply and planted most of it in slash and lobolly pines, Johnson said, creating national forests like the Conecuh.

“We looked around, and it was almost gone,” Johnson said of the longleaf. “Most of the forests were in places where quail were the objective.”

Nine of the Top 10 animals on the endangered species list in Alabama thrive in Longleaf forests, co-author John C. Hall, curator of the Black Belt Museum at the University of West Alabama, said.

“Part of the problem is that it’s been so long since (Longleaf forests) have been here, no one realizes what could be,” Hall said. “As you drive down the highway now, what you see is not the forest as it used to be.

“In my lifetime, the woods have changed from open to today a green tangled wall,” Hall said.

Johnson said it remains to be seen whether this is the twilight or the new dawn of the longleaf forest.

“We’d like to think it is the new dawn,” he said. “This book is a powerful tool for showing what it was and what it can be.”

Bill Finch, the executive director of the Mobile Botanical Gardens, and photographer Beth Maynor Young also collaborated with Johnson and Hall. Finch was scheduled to participate but could not attend.

The books are available from retail booksellers like Amazon, and locally, from The Longleaf Alliance at 334.427.1419.