Longleaf pine, Pinus palustris, is native to the southeastern United States – extending from southeast Virginia to central Florida, and west to the coastal plain of Texas. It was mistakenly given the species name “palustris“, which means “of marshes”, when it was observed under flooded conditions – but that name is somehow still appropriate, since large stands of Longleaf pine were (and in some cases, still are) a close distance from the coastal marshes but on higher ground. Large forests of Longleaf pine used to cover the southeast – once providing resin and turpentine and lumber for navy ships. Cut for timber, replaced by faster growing Loblolly pine or agriculture crops, there are far fewer stands of Longleaf pine today.
In this interview with US 17, Randy Tate (The Longleaf Alliance Ft. Stewart/Altamaha Longleaf Restoration Partnership Coordinator) shares with us some background on Longleaf pine ecosystems, and conservation efforts on-going along the Highway 17 Corridor. He also shares with us his fascinating photographs of this diverse ecosystem, which I hope will encourage you to visit some of the places he writes about, and perhaps get involved in the conservation efforts.
All of the photographs shown are those of Randy Tate and are posted here with his permission.
US 17: First, thank you for agreeing to ‘talk’ with US 17 and for educating us a bit about longleaf pine ecosystems along the Highway 17 corridor. Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about yourself.
Randy Tate: Well, in this context, I guess one thing to let you know about me is that I was born one block off US Hwy 17, in Ridgeland, SC. The Ridgeland Hospital (now closed) was just a block west of Hwy 17. This highway has run through my life, you might say. I grew up in Ridgeland and then attended Clemson for my undergraduate degree. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do with my life at that point, but I knew I loved to travel. So, I did a good bit of travelling in my 20s, Europe, South American, the Caribbean and a lot of the US. I noticed a pattern of putting myself outside in unique natural areas all the time and thought maybe I should be a biologist. Didn’t they hang around in cool natural areas all the time? Well, I managed to become one and a lot of times that is what we do!
I did my graduate work at UMass/Boston and studied Short-Eared Owl reproductive ecology and their interactions with Northern Harries on Nantucket Island. My field work was a project for the MA Natural Heritage Program. It was followed closely by The Nature Conservancy folks in MA and as I was finishing up my degree a position with TNC came open in Rhode Island. That got me in the door with TNC who I worked for, for 20 years, with positions in RI, the FL Keys, Long Island and GA. The last ten years with TNC I was the Georgia Director of Science and Stewardship.
TNC’s “redirection,” as of recent years, resulted in the elimination of my position. I then ended up with GA DNR as Natural Resource Program Manager for GA State Parks and Historic Sites. In April 2013, I began this new position with The Longleaf Alliance. It allowed me to work for an organization I have always admired, focus on a smaller geographic range – an end of career goal – and get closer to my family in Ridgeland.
US 17: Tell us a little bit about the history of the Longleaf pine, Pinus palustris, in the southeastern United States – what is their range? Also, aren’t Longleaf pine ecosystems surprisingly biodiverse?
Randy Tate: The modern history of the longleaf pine closely follows the history of the new country our ancestors built. It dominated the southeast when the settlers first arrived, an estimated 90 million acres, the largest forest dominated by a single tree in North American then or since. It is arguably one of the greatest forests ever on earth. The longleaf range is from south-eastern VA, just south of the northern terminus of Hwy 17, across the coastal plains of NC, SC and GA, into peninsula FL and across much of AL and southern MS and LA into eastern TX. Except for that part of Hwy 17 just north of Norfolk, VA, Hwy 17 runs totally through the longleaf territory! I would say move over, “Coastal Highway”, US Hwy 17 should instead be called the “Longleaf Highway.”
Longleaf forests are amazingly diverse. It’s often said that US and Southeastern school children know more about the tropical rainforests than they do about the longleaf forests, yet longleaf forests are as diverse, if not more so. The diversity is in the forest understory plants, the many grasses, legumes, forbs, etc. The key ingredient that gives rise to the diversity in the longleaf ecosystems is fire. Fire begets openness which lets in sunlight to the forest floor. In the absence of fire, hardwoods encroach shading the forest floor and suppressing sun-loving plants. Longleaf forests are truly “fire forests” and need frequent low intensity fires to remain healthy and diverse.
Longleaf was used selectively for building many of the great cities of the South and elsewhere, and for ship building too. Bill Finch, the Alabama writer, called longleaf, “…the wooden steel that built the early high-rises of New York and London.” It also built parts of Balmoral Castle, the Queen’s getaway in Scotland. Here in Savannah, you’re constantly finding longleaf in many of the older buildings. It’s always fun to come across some. But its selective cutting followed by transitions to agriculture and silviculture practices that favoured slash and loblolly pine led to its demise. And then what was left was most likely fire excluded.
US 17: What’s the mission of The Longleaf Alliance? Can individuals get involved, and if so – how?
Randy Tate: To quote from our website (www.longleafalliance.org):
“The mission of The Longleaf Alliance is to ensure a sustainable future for the longleaf pine ecosystem through partnerships, landowner assistance and science-based education and outreach.”
And, yes, we can only achieve our mission if individuals get involved. The website and our Facebook page are good sources of information on how you can get involved. You could take one of our Academies like Longleaf 101, or Longleaf 201, to learn lots about longleaf. Please, become a member and you can help support us. With membership comes our new magazine with even more information for members on what they can do. Our biennial conference was just held on Oct 22-24, in Mobile, AL. It was a super conference.
US 17: What are the main Longleaf pine restoration projects currently on-going along the Highway 17 corridor?
Randy Tate: Since Hwy 17 runs through so much longleaf habitat a lot is going on! A few years ago, the Longleaf Alliance joined with many other partners to develop a range wide plan for longleaf pine restoration and conservation, it’s called America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative (www.americaslongleaf.org.) The plan specifies 17 significant geographic areas (SGA) within the range of longleaf that are crucial to its recovery. Each SGA has a core anchor site where there are significant longleaf occurrences and where there are opportunities for further restoration and/or connectivity with other longleaf sites. US Hwy 17 runs through or close to six of these areas, Ocala National Forest, the Osceola/Okefenokee complex, Ft. Stewart/Altamaha, Francis Marion National Forest, NC Sandhills and the Onslow Bight area. Also, a new significant geographic area has recently been designated along the Savannah River in SC which also includes the ACE Basin area. It’s called SoLo ACE. Within each of these areas, a Local Implementation Team, or as I prefer, a Longleaf Restoration Partnership, is being formed. Different agencies and organizations are coming together to assist each other in longleaf restoration projects. So, it’s a very exciting time in the history of longleaf pine conservation.
US 17: If someone was driving down Highway 17 and wanted to visit some Longleaf pine stands, where would you recommend that they go?
Randy Tate: Since it runs through much of the range of longleaf pine there are a lot of places to visit. I’ll just list a few I am most familiar with.
The Francis Marion National Forest in SC has one of the largest stands of longleaf pine along Hwy 17. Bill Toomey, with the USFS, recommends a loop through the forest starting in Awendaw and ending up in McClellanville. You take Steed Rd. from Awendaw west to Halfway Creek Rd. There you turn right to go north on Halfway Creek Rd. until you get to Hwy 45 where you turn right heading back east toward the coast. This road brings you back to Hwy 17 at McClellanville; where I’m told there are some good lunch spots. This drive takes you through fire maintained longleaf forests with chances of sighting red-cockaded woodpeckers too. Also in this neck of the woods is the US Fish & Widlife’s Sewee Visitor and Environmental Education Center where you can get good information. Further north, Brookgreen Gardens has longleaf pine too.
Heading south in SC, the Tillman Sand Ridge Heritage Preserve and Wildlife Management Area is just about 13 miles west of Hwy 17. From Ridgeland, take Hwy 336 to Tillman. Crossing over Hwy 331, head west on Sand Hill Rd. about five miles where you will see an entrance on your left. The Preserve is open year round and is home to a nice population of gopher tortoise that might be seen if the weather is right.
In Georgia, directly on Hwy 17 south of Darien, the Hofwyl Broadfield State Historic Site has a nice trail through a coastal longleaf flatwoods. This trail has interpretive signage. Although in need of more prescribed burning, it is beautiful and very unique. The trailhead is just across Hwy 17 from the main entrance to Hofwyl Broadfield on the west side of the road.
Further south on Hwy 17 in Georgia, you can see longleaf pine at Crooked River State Park. Just about 10 miles east of Kingsland east of Hwy 17, Crooked River is just north of St. Mary’s. There are very good trails here through longleaf flatwoods. And, the Park is a great place to spend a few nights. It’s a great place to fish from too.
While there are many other stops along the way to see longleaf, one very special place is near Babson Park, FL, the Nature Conservancy’s Tiger Creek Preserve. Here you can see very unique longleaf sandhills and longleaf flatwoods in addition to scrub habitat. Tiger Creek is home to the endangered FL scrub jay and is open to the public. It is only a few miles east off Hwy 17.
US 17: I also want to thank you for sharing your photographs for this piece with US 17 – I get the sense that you always have your camera nearby. How long have you been interested in photography?
Randy Tate: I guess it’s been a good long while. I took a photography class at Clemson in 1972 and still have a couple of my pictures from then. It’s always seemed magical to be able to capture images. Of course, with the advent of digital there’s so much more you can do. I don’t know a lot about photography; I just like to take pictures and share them.
US 17: So I have to ask – how much of Highway 17 have you driven down? Do you have a favorite stretch of highway?
Randy Tate: I’m very familiar with the parts of the Hwy through SC and GA but less so with the rest. I would have to say my favourite stretch is through the ACE Basin in SC from about Coosawhatchie to Jacksonboro. My mother and father parked at the Hwy 17 bridge and took a walk along the Combahee River the day before I was born so that kind of makes that stretch special for me. The hike was reportedly the stimulus for her giving birth early the next morning. I guess I got a whiff of that salt marsh air and wanted to check it out myself.
I’d like to thank Randy Tate for sharing his wonderful photographs of longleaf pines (and his dog, Rooster, below) with US 17 and its readers – and for sharing with us a bit about longleaf pine conservation efforts along the Highway 17 (aka “Longleaf Highway”) Corridor. The longleaf pine ecosystem is a fascinating and diverse one, and one that has played a large role in the history of the southeastern United States. I hope that folks reading this will get outdoors, and check out some of the places that Randy mentioned. I know I will.