Montane Longleaf Forests

Controlled burn Mountain Longleaf NWR

Montane longleaf pine forests

Montane longleaf pine forests are found in northern Alabama and Georgia in the Blue Ridge, Ridge and Valley, and Cumberland Plateau regions at mid-elevations. Montane longleaf forests are distinct from longleaf’s other habitat types as the pines are adapted to well-drained, sandy to rocky soils on mountain slopes and ridges. Primarily, longleaf pine-dominated forests are open-canopied and uneven-aged. These uneven-aged stands consist of variably sized patches that were the result of frequent small-scale disturbances such as windstorms, fires, fatal insect infestations, and occasional ice storms.

The longleaf pine ecosystem’s historical reach spanned over 91 million acres of southeastern states and about 20 percent of the range was covered by the montane longleaf habitat type prior to European settlement. Most of the longleaf pines throughout the Southeast have been removed from the system due to overharvest and land conversion to loblolly pine plantations. Other causes for the decline of montane longleaf systems are the removal of fire from the landscape, nonnative species invasions (e.g. tallow and cogongrass), development, and climate change. Additionally, the loss of much of the overall longleaf pine ecosystem has led to a decrease in abundance of nearly 200 associated plant species. This is notable because montane longleaf forests have an extremely diverse understory, thought to be attributed to the overlapping of several range limits of other ecoregions.

The role of fire in longleaf systems 
Fire is important to the life cycle of longleaf pines because the seeds need direct contact with soil to germinate. Historically, lightning-caused fires and fires set by Native Americans and early settlers were responsible for clearing the understory and maintaining the open savanna-like ecosystems. Without fire, these landscapes are invaded by hardwoods and other pines that crowd longleaf regeneration and increase fuel loads.

Management Response 
To restore montane longleaf pine communities, it is best to mimic natural disturbance patterns. To maintain an open savanna-like ecosystem with a diverse understory, open midstories and canopy gaps are important to allow light to reach the forest floor. Silvicultural practices like single tree selections in combination with group selection systems can mimic small-scale disturbances.

Additionally, to restore systems that were converted to other pine species and to shift them back to montane longleaf pine communities it will be imperative to reintroduce fire into the system. Introducing slow burns that reduce duff buildup without scorching the remaining longleaf trees will be important for re-establishment.

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