Why Are Shortleaf Pines Important?

The shortleaf pine has at times been taken for granted. In recent history, it has often been treated as a kind of weed species in stands of other pines.

Credit: U.S. Forest Service

But it remains one of the four most important commercial conifers in the southeastern U.S., and it holds considerable value as both wildlife habitat and as a source of timber, pulpwood and other products. That makes its decline all the more significant—and alarming.

Today, shortleaf pines are found on just over 6 million acres in 22 states. Land use changes, altered cycles of fire, hybridization, disease outbreaks and pest infestations have all taken a toll on shortleaf pine forests and contributed to their decline.

Fire suppression has allowed species that have quicker early growth than the shortleaf pine—these include hardwoods and loblolly pine—to outcompete and supplant shortleaf seedlings.

Land use changes, and specifically the conversion of shortleaf pine forest to agriculture or loblolly pine plantations, have also played a role in the shortleaf’s decline. Many landowners have favored the faster-growing loblolly pine, in hopes of profiting more quickly from their investment.

The recent rise and spread of littleleaf disease, the most serious disease affecting shortleaf pines, has also taken a toll on the species. This fungal disease tends to affect 30- to 50-year-old trees growing in nutrient-poor, poorly drained soils where the fungus Phytophthora cinnamomi lives. Shortleaf pines are also vulnerable to root rot and red heart rot, and to infestation by Southern pine beetles.

In addition, hybridization between loblolly pines and shortleaf pines may also threaten shortleaf survival. That’s because hybridization mixes or “averages” the traits of each parent, causing some of the shortleaf’s unique characteristics to be lost. For example, shortleaf-loblolly pine hybrids may lack the sharp bend that protects seedlings from fire, and may as a result be more easily damaged or destroyed by fire than pure shortleaf pines.

Together, all these factors have led to the continuing decline of shortleaf pines. And as shortleaf pines are lost, so is the short­leaf pine/oak savanna ecosystem that once provided habitat for many plant and animal communities.

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