📬 Want some Southern goodness in your inbox every Friday?
Get Scalawag's latest stories and a run down of what's happening across the South with our weekly newsletter.
When I talk to old-timers back in East Texas—very old, as in their late 80s, early 90s—they tell me about how the landscape, filled today with loblolly pines in most directions, was once clear cut as far as the eye could see. That's due to the role the timber industry played in many local economies across the South. Coming from a small town in our region, the timber industry was certainly the driving factor behind the development of my hometown. The same probably goes for some of yours, too.
Unfortunately, there's no one still living who can tell me what the landscape outside Kirbyville, Texas, looked like before that. Centuries ago, where loblolly pines stand today, native longleaf and shortleaf pine species populated a region that spanned from Virginia to East Texas. More than 900 species—some endangered—depend on the longleaf's biodiversity. That native stretch of longleaf is gone now, replaced with loblolly, the faster-growing species we see today.
But even so, over the past few decades, an effort to restore the longleaf population has emerged. Among those leading the effort are folks like my guest this week, Chris Erwin, a native Alabaman whose family worked in timber. He's also the director of Southern forest conservation at the American Forest Foundation. What's particularly interesting to me is the way Erwin links the longleaf pine's hard times to a clever combination of New Deal-era welfarism and modern American capitalism. He also offers a pretty awesome chronology of the evolution of our region's forests that left me reconsidering the way I view the woods around me.
Xander Peters: Long before our time, did the South look like East Texas' Big Thicket at some point?
Chris Erwin: It has changed dramatically. When people talk about ecosystem restoration, I always ask, 'Restore it to when?' Because if you go back 10,000 years ago to the last ice age, this was really spruce and fir. If you go back 2,000 years ago, Native Americans burned consistently, so you had really open, park-like forests. Then you go back 50 years ago, or maybe 100 years ago, and you really didn't have a whole lot left—in Alabama specifically, it's mostly row crops everywhere you look. There wasn't nearly as much forest as what we have today. It just depends on when you want to go back and look.
XP: How'd we get here?
CE: You go back to the Civil War, and the Southern economy was decimated. It was an agricultural, human-slave economy. Once slavery was abolished and the [agricultural] economy was wiped out, the landowners [said], 'Where can we work where we [can] find value?' The value was in the forest. So that's where they went, and we really over-harvested our forests. The story of longleafs is not the story of longleafs, it's the story of the Southern yellow pine. The same thing that happened to longleafs happened to all of the Southern yellow pine. It's just that we've done a really good job of telling the longleaf story.
If you fast forward from the Civil War to World War II, you had the introduction of mechanized harvesting equipment, and so you're able to grow a lot more crops a lot more intensively and get a lot more output. When we get to the Great Depression, the country really needed to put people to work. One of the areas that they saw was basically reforesting the country. We had extracted a lot of our timber resources. FDR made the Civilian Conservation Corps, which were really designed to put people back to work, but also to rebuild the infrastructure of the nation. And whether it was national parks or state parks—and all of the buildings that you see in those places—or replanting our forests, that's kind of rebuilding the infrastructure.
So, imagine taking 1,000 unemployed people off the street and putting them into a forest setting, where they have to plant trees: They're not trained foresters. Today, a forester would say 'Right tree for the right site: We're gonna plant this tree on this site, because this tree evolved to these conditions.' Well, when you're taking people off the street, they don't really have that ability. So what they did was say, 'Let's find the tree that is most adaptive to a variety of conditions. Can it tolerate wet soils? Can it tolerate dry soils? Can it tolerate competition?' What they found was loblolly pine, which was probably the most adaptive at a wide range of conditions. That's what they set the public towards reforesting.
Well, if that's what they're going to be planting, guess where all of the research and development dollars went in terms of 'how do we improve this tree?' It went to loblolly. So all of the science and all of the ag schools, the land grant institutions, that's where the dollars were in terms of research, and that's where all of the studies were being done. The whole system was really built around loblolly. That's where all the genetic improvement has gone, that's what all of the foresters are trained to do, and that's what all the nurseries are growing.
See also: Uprooting 'private landowner syndrome
XP: What qualifies as an old-growth forest, and how many are left?
CE: That's a really controversial term, but it's a term that gets debated back and forth. It means different things to different people. For you, you might think old-growth means mature forests. This is a forest with big trees. They've been around as long as I've been alive. So, therefore, it must be old-growth. To somebody else, like me, old-growth might mean a climax forest.
So, if you can, imagine a cow pasture, and that humans are totally wiped off the planet. What will happen in that cow pasture is the grass will turn to shrubs, and the shrubs will turn to early successional forests, which are trees that have seeds with wings on them. I'm sure you've seen those little pine seeds with the little helicopter wings. Sweetgum and yellow pine are all trees that have adapted a winged seed, because they need 100 percent sunlight to grow and mature. Well, that forest will grow and mature—and to you, that might be an old-growth forest. But to me, that's the first stage of a really long period of time that the forest will go through. What's happening then is that there are squirrels and birds and all kinds of animals coming and going into that forest, and they're bringing different kinds of seeds into that forest. They're bringing acorns and hickory nuts and beechnuts. An oak tree only needs 50 percent sunlight to grow and mature, and as the pine tree dies in that pioneer forest, an oak tree might take its place. If the pine, sweetgum forest is mature at 75, then by age 200, that forest starts to become more mixed, so you'll have oak and hickory—and then the pines start to die out. And then, if that oak-hickory forest is allowed to continue for another 200 years, you're gonna have things like beech and magnolia, which can grow in 100 percent shade—they don't need full sunlight at all.
If you were to ask me what an old-growth forest is, I would say it's a forest that has gone through a period of stages of succession and is now a climax forest. If you take away any disturbance at all—hurricanes, fires, tornadoes—and just allow that forest to continue, it will perpetuate in beech and magnolia.
XP: How do you think pines have come to define a region like ours here in the South?
CE: Well, it certainly is in our culture. The South is the most diverse region in the country. When we talk about forests, people think of trees, but really all of the species are dependent on those forests. It's an incredible region. Pine is one piece to that. You can use that to capture the imagination of the public through music, art, literature. There's example after example. Thinking about East Texas, Leadbelly was an old blues musician who did a song called "Where did you sleep last night?" Nirvana redid that song. It permeates our culture. Telling the story of the longleaf is just the same as Leadbelly singing that song about the girl that came home late. He wanted to know where she was sleeping.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter on Gulf Coast foodways for more interviews, plus recipes, stories, and news.
More from Salt, Soil, & Supper:
"Florida just wasn't designed geologically to support 20 million people."
"The statistics suggest that most wealthier white people in New Orleans have only gotten much wealthier since Katrina."
"When you turn on your tap, you expect clean water to come out, and then you pay your bill once a month and expect that somehow these two things should work like clockwork, and there is nothing else that's happening behind it"