Written by Pecker Trekker race director Jackson Stewart for ATRA’s Spring 2017 Trail Times Newsletter.
The southern US has always been known for its pine forests. A formerly major part of this ecosystem, the Longleaf Pine was a prolific species that spanned over 90 million acres from Virginia south to Florida, and as far east as Texas. This tree provided the back bone of the ecosystem for many organisms, the most notable — the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. The plentiful longleaf were such strong trees that they immediately garnered the attention of European settlers who began exploiting the pines.
Despite the initial abundance, the continuous harvesting for use in ship and rail building over the next few centuries eventually caused the trees to become scarce. The Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustrus) was reduced to a range just three percent the size of its original territory. Although these trees are extremely important to the ecological composition of the southern forests, it turns out that the longleaf is not very well suited for long term use as a cash crop. Though they produce excellent lumber, a few aspects of the trees biological make up inhibit their ability to maintain financial viability.
One issue is that the longleaf relies seemingly counterintuitively on the destructive nature of forest fires. Early settlers, as well as today’s population, have a natural prejudice against the destructive nature of fires. However, to the longleaf a wild fire is the bringer of life. Fire clears away fallen leaves and debris so that the seeds, which have a difficult time germinating when not directly in contact with soil, can take root and expand the species. So, while the residents of the region believed they would be helping both themselves and the ecosystem by suppressing forest fires, they were actually dooming the species by severely hampering its rate of reproduction.
Another factor contributing to the decline of the longleaf was the growth rate of the trees. The longleaf takes on average 30 to 40 years to mature to harvesting age, while many other trees can be harvested in 20 to 30 years. This caused timber companies to be discouraged from replanting the longleaf and instead replacing it with other species.
While the active destruction of the longleaf contributed greatly to the decline of the species, ironically the success of the longleaf before human intervention was a large contributing factor as to why its exploitation went unabated for such a long time. Because the Longleaf was one of the most abundant species of pine tree, even without regrowth, the tree was still readily available until the 1920s, when it was finally realized that the species was in grave danger.
Unfortunately, this destruction did not end with the tree itself, as its previous abundance had cemented an important role in the ecosystem for the longleaf. Many species of animals became reliant on the longleaf, causing their species to be affected by the decimation of the longleaf population.
Arguably the animal most affected by the destruction of the Longleaf Pine was the Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus borealis), which is specially adapted for cohabitation with the Longleaf Pine. While this woodpecker does technically have the ability to colonize other types of trees in rare instances, it is extremely well suited for the longleaf in particular.
A reason for this is a fungus called red heart rot which appears in the core of older — usually 65 to 80-year-old — Longleaf pines for which the Red-cockaded Woodpecker has a major affinity. They spend years boring into the trunk to get at this fungus and once it is hollowed out they use this bore as a home. They also like to use the large sap production of the longleaf as a defense mechanism in which the woodpecker pokes small holes for the sap to escape so that it coats the outside of the tree and makes it difficult to scale the tree and reach the red-cockaded’s nest.
Though the Red-cockaded Woodpecker is not the only species of woodpecker that lives in these areas, it was uniquely affected because it is the only species of woodpecker that exclusively burrows in live trees while most others can also make use of dead pines. This coupled with the fact that the red-cockaded does not migrate and must rely on the longleaf for year-round shelter caused it to decline into endangered status as the trees were decimated and also placed into this category.
Since the realization in the late 20th century that these species were in serious danger of extinction, many groups, both private and governmental, have made strides to help the longleaf and Red-cockaded Woodpecker recover. These groups attempt to educate people as to the benefits controlled forest fires provide, as well as actively constructing nest for the woodpecker and conducting controlled burns of the limited areas that are still inhabited by the Longleaf.
One of these organizations is the Okamulgee Ranger District, a branch of the Talladega National Forest, which is located just a few miles southeast of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This national forest undertakes major rebuilding and management strategies, including those mentioned above as well as other techniques, in order to promote the regrowth of the populations.
In order to benefit these species by providing both awareness and financial support of the efforts at Oakmulgee, a benefit trail run/walk called the Oakmulgee Pecker Trekker has been set up by University of Alabama students. The event is slated for April 8, and includes both 10k and 16k routes. The goal of our event is not only to raise money to fund research and conservation on behalf of the Longleaf Pine and Red-cockaded Woodpecker, but also to showcase the beauty of this largely overlooked area of the state. The routes showcase one of the parks most beautiful ridges, as well as the NEON research tower and effects of the aftermath of the 2011 tornadoes that devastated the region.
To sign up for the race, or donate to the cause, visit the race registration page. Even if you are not able to contribute, we highly recommend that you visit the forest as it is a true natural gem of the state as well as one of the few places to see both the Longleaf Pine and the Red-cockaded Woodpecker in their natural splendor.
Jackson Stewart is a UA undergrad studying marine science/geology. Although not a runner, Stewart is someone who loves being outside. As a lifelong Alabaman he feels a strong connection to the Longleaf Pine as it is Alabama’s state tree, as well as the woodpecker which is so related to the tree.