The longleaf pine ecosystem in the southeastern United States was once one of the most diverse biomes on the planet. Spanning some 90 million acres from Virginia to Texas, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries industrial timber companies engaged in wasteful practices that left much of the land denuded. By 1935 only 20 million acres remained of the forest and of that amount roughly three-fifths was second growth. By 1955 only 12 million acres were left, by 1965 only 7 million, and as of 1996 only 2.95 million acres remained of this one-time sweeping feature of the American landscape. Unlike other lost features of the American environment, however, the disappearance of the piney woods has been mourned from the time the turpentiners and the loggers began their ravages in the mid-nineteenth century up through the present day. Professional foresters began experimenting with how to preserve and grow longleaf pines commercially as early as the 1920s, but faced many obstacles due to the highly evolved adaptive capacities of the trees, which rely on fire for regeneration. As conservationist Lawrence S. Earley argued in 2004, “saving longleaf has arguably been the longest-lived issue in American conservation history.”
The loss of this vast forest ecosystem, however, opened up other opportunities for land use, including: row crop agriculture, fruit and vegetable farms, industrial timber farms of loblolly and slash pine used for pulp and paper mills, intensive pork and poultry production, and even the roads, housing developments, and suburban malls that paved over the former longleaf belt. These agricultural and economic innovations together with the desire of conservationists to preserve and restore endangered longleaf habitat now face climatic shifts that render the future of each land use more precarious than ever. Understanding why and how the piney woods changed over the course of the twentieth century, how capitalism, law, and ecology intertwined to induce these transformations, and what evolving land uses meant for southerners of various classes, races, ethnicities, and genders are the goals of this poster presentation.