Work under way to re-establish tree’s habitat
“An old country boy once told me, ‘You’ve got to have these kinds of places. These places hold the world together.’ ” Latimore Smith, The Nature Conservancy
Even before he knew its name, Latimore Smith loved the longleaf pine.
Growing up on a dairy farm in the Florida Parishes through the 1960s and ’70s, Smith lived on land once cleared of pine trees for pasture.
But nearby he saw the remnants of longleaf pine habitat — a prairie beneath the pines some called it — where a sea of grassland and native wildflowers rolled under the scattered stands of tall, sturdy pines.
“It’s an incredibly beautiful tree,” Smith, now the director of stewardship in Louisiana for The Nature Conservancy, said during a tour of Lake Ramsay Preserve, a remnant of the longleaf pine habitat in St. Tammany Parish.
“It’s the prettiest tree in the South,” he said.
Longleaf pines grow straight and high and develop a crown of long needles that ball around the limb’s tip, resembling a pompom. Their savannas — like the tree-and-grassland savannas of Africa — are composed of groups of trees spaced wide enough to drive a car between them with native grasses, plants and wildflowers covering the ground.
Sawmills once considered the longleaf pine to be the “world’s greatest timber tree,” Smith said, because of their high-quality lumber and their tall, straight trunks, which were much sought-after for poles. Through the late 1800s and early 1900s forests across the South were clear cut, and only 4 percent of the longleaf pine’s native range of 90 million acres from Virginia to East Texas survived, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife figures.
When foresters cut in those times they did not replant, instead moving on to the next stand of trees. When the U.S. Forest Service and some large timber companies began to replant in the 1940s and ’50s, most chose to plant the easier-to-cultivate loblolly or slash pine, Jacob said.
In the Florida Parishes of Louisiana, Longleaf pine savannas once covered 1.5 million acres, Smith said, but many of those acres were converted to agricultural land, housing developments and commercial pine plantations, and only 20,000 to 30,000 acres survive.
In the past 30 years conservationists have begun to recognize the diverse habitat these trees provided, Jacob said.
“I think the pendulum is swinging back now,” Jacob said. “People have realized what we lost.”
While some organizations have focused on replanting the longleaf, Smith focuses on conserving the remaining habitat.
“We would love to see all of that remain,” he said.
The Lake Ramsay Preserve, near Goodbee in St. Tammany Parish, contains 400 acres of one of the last longleaf pine savannas in the Florida Parishes. Next to it is the 796-acre Lake Ramsey Wildlife Management Area, operated by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. In the 1980s, while working for LDWF, Smith came across this remnant longleaf pine habitat and convinced the landowner to sell it for conservation purposes. He calls it his baby, his legacy.
“People didn’t realize these old poor piney woods — that’s what they would call ’em — how special they were,” Smith said.
Smith, 60, is the “guru” of the longleaf in Louisiana, said Rick Jacob, co-chairman of the Texas-Louisiana Longleaf Pine Task Force, a joint effort between The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture created to return the tree to prominence.
Smith earned a master’s degree in wildlife science at LSU before starting a doctorate he never finished. He became more interested in plants, he said, and began living at his family’s old homestead and did some farming.
Smith, who calls himself “an educated redneck,” describes the beginning of his conservation career as lucky circumstance — someone heard of him and asked him to become a conservation ecologist with the Louisiana Natural Heritage Program. For 14 years he toured the state looking for the best examples of natural habitats that could be acquired for preservation. In 2000, he began working for The Nature Conservancy, monitoring lands across the state set aside for conservation. He and his wife built a house on 27 acres in St. Tammany Parish, milling lumber from a longleaf pine on the premises.
At Lake Ramsay, insect-eating pitcher plants grow in pink bells from the grass along with the white flowers of shooting star sedge, and the toothache plant, a folk remedy for sore mouths, shoots up with yellow and red tips.
This diverse habitat of plants and the animals that make it home are just as important as the trees, Smith said. The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, the threatened gopher tortoise and several other rare species prefer the open grasses of the pine land.
These “poor piney woods” had sandy soil and burned often because of lightning strikes. Longleaf actually rely on fire to grow. In their first stage of growth after sprouting from seed, they resemble a mound of grass, and once fire burns the land around them, they shoot into trees. Fire prevents other trees from crowding them.
Because longleaf pine habitats require controlled burning, Smith worries that the remaining savannas in the state could become victims of encroaching housing subdivisions. Smoke and fire make the residents nervous, but controlled burns are the only way to mimic the wildfires that once burned the land every three to four years.
“People don’t understand fire,” he said. “They’re scared of it.”
Walking the trail at Lake Ramsay, Smith pointed out the wildflowers and grasses, then cocked his ear to hear bird calls.
Before leaving, Smith stood in the preserve’s gravel parking lot and surveyed the trees, then said, “An old country boy once told me, ‘You’ve got to have these kinds of places. These places hold the world together.’ Hold the world together,” he repeated, pausing to look at the forest. “I like that.”