Longleaf pine forests in Alabama are making a comeback—thanks to fire

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians burns a rare ecosystem to heal it, a few dozen acres at a time.
Young longleaf pines growing healthily in a burnt landscape
The Poarch Band of Creek Indians manages the longleaf pine forest at the Magnolia Branch Wildlife Reserve in rural Escambia County, Alabama. Over the past decade, they've planted more than one million long leaf seedlings at the reserve, and nurtured them through nature-based fire practices. Lance Cheung/USDA

In 1944, the US Forest Service launched the Smokey Bear campaign to promote fire prevention on public and recreational lands. “Smokey did a disservice in many ways because the message was so strong,” Heather Alexander, professor of forest ecology at Auburn University, says. “It was probably the best ad campaign ever that people remember: that fire is bad.”

“Smokey now says, ‘only you can prevent wildfire.’ But most people have no idea that a wildfire is unintentional and a prescribed fire is intentional,” she adds.

Today, Native American tribes, government agencies, conservation groups, and even private landowners regularly burn trees, grasses, scrub, and more to help the health of fire-dependent ecosystems. Many places across the county have gone without fire for decades, which makes it hard to reintroduce the natural process safely. But doing so is crucial to protecting biodiversity and reducing flammable underbrush that can fuel more catastrophic blazes. 

While wildfires are commonly associated with the West Coast, “there’s a culture of fire” in the Southeastern US as well, Alexander says. The longleaf pine ecosystem that historically covered the majority of Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas and patches of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Virginia requires natural fires every two to three years. From the late 1800s to the 1970s, fire-suppression laws prevented many natural burns from occurring and hindered the longleaf pine’s ability to reproduce, along with many other plants and animals that depend on them. The native evergreen, known for its finger-like needles that can grow longer than a foot, owes its existence to recurrent fires; efforts to restore the species and the ecosystem it underpins have vastly improved since the mid-1990s. These sunny forests that once characterized the Southeast will never fully return, but the remaining fragments can still be tended and hopefully, expanded.

Born of fire

Many of North America’s ecosystems have evolved to survive and utilize fire’s destructive force. Native American tribes, such as the Poarch Band of Creek Indians who historically lived in Alabama and Georgia, routinely conducted prescribed burns, setting low-intensity fires that would clear out underbrush, promote the growth of diverse plants, and create ecological niches for various wildlife to thrive. As European colonists pushed westward, they excluded fire from newly settled landscapes, removing an integral cycle from the environment. 

After decades of fire-suppression laws, US officials slowly began to integrate prescribed burn practices into federal land management strategies. Until then, there was a scientific misunderstanding that fire, whether started by lightning or Native American tribes, was a detrimental phenomenon. But scientists realized the opposite is true when mounting research in the 1960s proved fire’s positive and pivotal role in keeping the balance. 

[Related: Wildfires could hit your hometown. Here’s how to prepare.]

In Alabama, prescribed fires were reintroduced to the landscape in the 1970s by the state’s Forestry Commission. In 1996, the Alabama State Legislature passed a “Right to Burn” law, declaring burning as a landowner’s inherent right. By 2001, the practice had improved ecosystem health to the point where whitetail deer and wild turkey populations reached an all-time high

Longleaf pine forests are naturally open with abundant light pouring through the overstory, almost like a park. Wildflowers and native grasses carpet the floor. The habitat is home to countless varieties of birds, reptiles and amphibians that can’t be found anywhere else, and many of which are now endangered. Prior to extensive human development, bison, red wolves, and mountain lions roamed here. 

Young longleaf pine standing after a controlled burn
Prescribed burns reveal young longleaf pines about a foot tall in the cleared-out understory. The burn will help provide nutrients and additional sunlight to the growing trees. They mature in just about two years, shooting up to more than 100 feet tall. Lance Cheung/USDA

“These woods are radically different from the way things would’ve looked historically,” says Sehoy Thrower, an environmental protection specialist with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. 

After noticing the extent of the longleaf pine forest’s change over her lifetime, including the overgrowth of invasive plants and a lack of access to edible and medicinal plants that were more abundant when she and her grandmother were younger, Thrower asked herself, “What are the grand, sweeping, huge things we can do to really make a difference? The biggest answer is always fire.” 

Sweet home Alabama

The longleaf pine ecosystem once encompassed 90 million acres from Virginia to Texas. Today, it only adds up to 4.5 million acres—a 95 percent reduction from its original range. By 1920, most of the forest was lost to timber harvesting and land development, leaving it extremely fragmented.

Longleaf pine historic range in Southeast US. Map is in white, gray, green, and blue.
Longleaf pines are unique to the largely sandy and acidic soils of the Southeast. USFWS

Members of the Poarch Creek tribe, which is now largely based out of southwestern Alabama, a few miles from Mobile, support the remaining trees in a number of ways. “One of the greatest things they’ve done is planted thousands of longleaf pines back into our wildlife reserve acreage,” Thrower says. The other is prescribed fires.

James Agerton, land and forestry manager for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, leads their burn team. “What we are trying to do at the tribe is keep or develop all of our property into what was naturally occurring in this region back before the timber harvest,” he says.

“Most burns [in Alabama] are done with ecosystem management in mind,” says Kyle Marable, resource stewardship biologist at the Alabama Wildlife Federation. “We’re not just trying to burn to reduce fire fuel loads, but we’re trying to burn because we want to get the plant community and ecosystem back to where it needs to be.”

State agencies, conservation groups such as the Nature Conservancy and Longleaf Alliance, and the Poarch Creek tribe all set controlled fires to restore the longleaf pine ecosystem and aid native plant and animal populations. For private landowners, there are financial incentives and cost share programs, such as through the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service

“Burning is vital to prepare the land and seedbed for longleaf regeneration,” Agerton says. “Once longleaf are established in an area, regular burning helps with competing plants and just cleaning up the understory under the trees.” 

Nearly every part of the longleaf pine ecosystem depends on fire for maintenance and reproduction. Burning helps open up forests to receive more ground-level sunlight, allowing new pines and other flora to sprout. Otherwise, shade-tolerant plants, like red maple and sweet gum, outcompete the local species. “[The forest] just gets overgrown by those other trees, and it’ll die eventually because it’s not getting enough light,” Alexander says. “So fire is the mechanism to kill those other trees.” Many of the plants that take over longleaf pine forests typically grow in shady, wet conditions around rivers and creeks, where fire can’t easily reach. “They’ve been allowed to escape because we excluded fire,” Alexander explains. 

Controlled burn being set in longleaf pine forest
The flames from a well-planned controlled burn should never reach higher than the forest understory. Heather Alexander

Agerton says he burns about 25 to 30 percent the Poarch Creek tribe’s longleaf pine lands at a time on a three-year rotation, which aligns with the ecosystem’s natural fire schedule. Because fire suppression has allowed underbrush to grow outside its historical bounds in the past century, his team won’t burn until they manually thin it out. 

Safety is a top priority. Every prescribed burn needs a written plan, including management objectives and contingency plans, and a permit from the Alabama Forestry Commission. All workers undergo a burn management course to receive a certification every five years. Before setting a fire, Agerton and his team will alert locals, prioritizing individuals with asthma or other respiratory problems. 

Agerton checks the forecast regularly and will only conduct a burn if conditions like wind, temperature, and moisture are correct. During the pre-burn meetings, the crew has a safety briefing before they head out with a fleet of ATVs, each holding a 50-gallon tank of water, and a firetruck, which is the last line of defense if the flames somehow cross the break lines the workers dig. 

[Related on PopSci: In the future, your car could warn you about nearby wildfires]

All these careful measures, combined with Native American science and nature-based practices, have led to hard-earned successes. The Forest Service’s latest update on the longleaf pine ecosystem estimates that 421,000 acres of longleaf pine have been reestablished throughout the South since 2012. This growth “suggests the work of landowners and land managers to establish new stands of longleaf pine, use prescribed burning for hardwood mid-story reduction, and perhaps bring mixed stands of longleaf pine and other species increasingly to longleaf dominance, may be effective,” according to the report.

Periodic burning is much more efficient than manually removing underbrush. “In our forestry management practice, it’s a lot easier to go in and set a fire than to load up two skid steers with grapples on them and clean a hundred acres,” Agerton says. “Where that may take a month, I can run a fire through in half a day.”

Underbrush doesn’t just add to wildfire risk: It also prevents diverse life from flourishing. In some areas of longleaf pine forest, scientists have found 40 plant species per square meter of woodland. The ecosystem supports approximately 35 amphibian, 56 reptile, 88 bird, and 40 mammal species—though many are approaching extinction. Multiple species of carnivorous pitcher plants that grow on the moist outskirts around longleaf forests have landed on the endangered species list, largely due to fire suppression. The threatened gopher tortoise plays the role of an ecosystem engineer: Its burrows are a crucial aspect of the longleaf pine habitat and provide shelter for at least 360 animal species.

Baby gopher tortoise in grass
A baby gopher tortoise ambles through grasses in a longleaf pine forest. The reptiles can live for up to 60 years in the wild, and are wholly terrestrial. Randy Browning/USFWS

“It’s not like everything is burned uniformly,” Alexander says. “There’s a lot of heterogeneity, and that heterogeneity creates more spaces for more wildlife to use. It’s about creating that patchiness because every organism has different needs. So, the more patchiness, more needs can get met.”

Other threatened and endangered wildlife, such as bobwhite quail, indigo snakes, and red-cockaded woodpeckers, are slowly returning to longleaf pine ecosystems post-burn. In addition to tortoise burrows, animals like birds and squirrels take refuge in woodpecker tree cavities.

“There are a lot of different species that are starting to thrive as far as quail, gopher tortoise, and snakes … you’re starting to see a comeback with those species,” Agerton says. “It’s good to be a part of something that’s starting to make a difference.” 

The resilience of longleaf pine forests can have cumulative benefits for the health of the planet, too. “If we take fire out of a system, then we make our universe more susceptible to really catastrophic fires,” Alexander notes. “We see that out West; we’ve seen it in Alaska; we see it in Russia. Anywhere that fires have been suppressed and not allowed to do their thing, then you get fuels accumulating.”

Back to earth

“There’s a lot of talk now about fire prescribed fire is not climate-smart forestry, because fires emit carbon into the atmosphere, and that’s absolutely true,” Alexander says. “But they recover all of [the emitted carbon].”

Unlike burning fossil fuels, the greenhouse gases released through burning forests can be neutralized down the line. After treated longleaf pines mature—in an astoundingly quick span of two years or so—they can store carbon dioxide in their roots, while fostering the growth of other carbon-sequestering plants in the understory. “All that carbon that gets emitted through fire is recovered as the forest responds to it and regrows and puts it back into vegetation and tree biomass,” Alexander explains. “There’s misunderstandings about how it all works.”

Prescribed burns are nothing like the tree-torching wildfires that have caused thousands of civilian deaths and injuries and billions of dollars in damage in the US in the past decade. They have low-intensity flames that merely lick at the bases of trees and grow one to five feet high, depending on the type of underbrush. So, they don’t release as much smoke as an uncontrolled fire would. 

Fire isn’t the most dangerous part of burning—the health risks created by smoke can affect far more people and wildlife. When burns aren’t conducted, catastrophic wildfires such as those seen in the West and in Canada are easily sparked by increasingly dry and hot conditions driven by climate change. The noxious effects can reach entire swaths of the continent.

[Related: How to mask up to protect yourself from wildfire smoke]

“There’s a lot of concern about climate change and how that will influence both wildfires and our ability to conduct prescribed fires,” Alexander says. Higher temperatures and less moisture on a global scale mean burn teams have to be more careful about where and when they set blazes. But conditions also have to be dry enough for fires to spark—and interestingly, some parts of Alabama are becoming cooler and wetter. That means the window for burning, which normally includes the entire cold season from October to March and the summer months of June and July, is becoming narrower, leaving crews with less time to clear all the forest acres that need rejuvenating.

Agerton says patience is one of a burner’s essential qualities because essentially, they have to play with fire. “But also to work in this industry, you need to have a passion for it,” he adds. “You need to have the desire to pass along something that is gonna be here long after you’re gone and take pride in doing that.” With his team’s efforts, the longleaf pine forests and the various plants and animals that call them home will be here for the next generation to enjoy.

Longleaf pine needles on fire
Longleaf pine trees can survive small cyclical fires. But larger, more irregular ones can damage or even kill the trees. John Maxwell/USFWS

To that end, fire management is of the many cultural traditions the Poarch Creek tribe is trying to revitalize in Alabama. “It’s something Creek people have done for millennia, and it’s something that’s disappeared in a cultural sense. But I think it will naturally come back,” Thrower says. 

Recently, two young tribal members approached Agerton to tell him that they decided to go to school to study forestry management. They will likely take over the reins once Agerton and others retire. “If anything, I’d say they probably will do more than what we’re doing now,” he says.

The coming decades will show how fire crews like the Poarch Creek tribe’s can increase the resilience of forests, grasslands, and other essential habitats. Many North American ecosystems evolved with fire as a natural process over millennia. “It’s important for people to understand that many forest types in the Eastern US also require fire,” Alexander says. “This is not a longleaf-only story.”