The longleaf pine forest of the American Southeast once covered more than 90 million acres from Virginia to Texas. Carpeted with a lush grassland understory, it is one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth, home to red-cockaded woodpeckers, bobwhite quail, gopher tortoises, indigo snakes and other species.
As the region’s population multiplied and land was cleared and converted to other uses, the forest diminished. Without wildfires to spark new growth and control competition from hardwoods and invasive species, the trees’ ability to regenerate weakened. By the end of the twentieth century, only three million acres of longleaf pine remained. Though the ecosystem has diminished dramatically, the acres that remain continue to be highly diverse, with more than 600 species of plants and animals remaining.
In 2004, Atlanta-based Southern Company saw an opportunity to make a difference, teaming with NFWF to establish the Longleaf Legacy Program. Together, the partners have invested more than $8.7 million in projects that will restore more than 87,000 acres of longleaf pine forest. The action will substantially accelerate the pace of recovery of species like the red-cockaded woodpecker and others that reside here.
“We don’t just fund what people ask for; we challenge them to stretch themselves and through that process, they share their learning with us. It’s very important to have a relationship built on mutual respect and trust, because they see us as an active partner and not just a donor,” said Leslie Montgomery, Southern Company’s environmental stewardship program manager.
Montgomery noted that the company’s 10-year commitment gives the program further credibility. “This is a signature program that will be operating for many years,” she said. “Having that focus and knowing that it’s going to be sustained definitely gives us the capability to get others involved.” Partners including The Nature Conservancy, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Longleaf Alliance and state and local agencies are putting funds to use across the Southeast.
A further boost to restoration of the forest is the Longleaf Stewardship Fund, launched in December 2011 to advance the goals of the Range-Wide Conservation Plan for Longleaf Pine. With added financial and technical resources from the Department of Defense, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the landmark public–private partnership fund will build on the success of the Southern Company partnership and expand the initiative to nine states within longleaf pine’s historic range.
“NFWF has a business approach to conservation, focused on delivering results and engaging people, and that’s what we wanted to do,” Montgomery said. “I’m a firm believer that you’re going to get a better result if all partners are vested in the outcome.”