Back in the 1990s, longleaf pine knowledge was in danger of dying out. Many of the scientists who had dedicated their careers to studying longleaf were near the end of their lives. Fewer people than ever appreciated the “whispering pines” with forest floors bathed in dappled sunlight filtering through the high, open tree canopies.
Two professors at Auburn University — Rhett Johnson and Dean Gjerstad — knew many of these scientists and realized that, like a language only spoken by a handful of elders, longleaf expertise and appreciation were in danger of disappearing.
Johnson recalls: “We first looked at longleaf just as a tree, but then we realized what a unique and valuable ecosystem it was. Healthy longleaf forests have incredible biodiversity. They’re like living museums when you consider how little is left. After a few years of lonely longleaf research, we looked around and found that longleaf was still disappearing at a pretty rapid rate. But the people who were really knowledgeable about it were disappearing even faster.”
Longleaf pines had become a pale shadow of their former presence. Forests that covered 90 million acres of the southeastern United States a few hundred years ago had been reduced to less than 5 million acres — the rest cleared or degraded by logging, crop development, grazing, human development, fire suppression and feral hogs.
Johnson and Gjerstad decided it was time to take action.