For over three years, Tom O’Halloran has perched himself on 120-foot tall towers, surrounded by trees, eavesdropping on some unique, and important, “conversations.” However, he isn’t listening to people talking. The “conversations” that O’Halloran is listening to are “the rhythmic, cyclical interactions between the land and air” that occur in longleaf pine forests.
An assistant professor in Clemson’s Forestry and Environmental Conservation Department, O’Halloran is part of the university’s research team collecting data on the carbon and water cycling that occurs in longleaf pine forests, seeking to discover what benefits these forests can offer to the earth’s environment. Their work is taking place on a 16,000-acre research reserve operated by Clemson’s Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology and Forest Science on the Hobcaw Barony, located near South Carolina’s Winyan Bay. This study is being conducted in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy, whose interests in carbon sequestration and natural climate solutions coincide with the university’s research.
The project has received support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and funding from International Paper. The NFWF and International Paper actually joined together in 2013 to create the Forestland Stewards Partnership, whose mission includes protecting and enhancing core habitat areas as anchor forests, restoring populations of at-risk wildlife and plant species and improving water and air quality through healthier forests. This type of private-nonprofit partnership model has continued to increase as corporations look for collaboration opportunities aimed at offsetting their carbon emissions.
In 2020, NFWF’s Longleaf Stewardship Fund awarded the Clemson project a major grant allowing the program to further its study on carbon sequestering and water cycling among mature longleaf pine plantations and more recently planted ones. This vital research can assist landowners, forest managers, and other conservation practitioners in the efforts to better measure the potential carbon outcomes of planting and managing longleaf pine.
Besides generating this wealth of vital environmental data, this project has an additional, equally important, goal: to restore native longleaf forests and the great biodiversity these habitats contain.
At one time in America’s past, the longleaf pine ecosystem exceeded over 90 million acres, stretching from Virginia to Texas. Nowadays, only five percent of the ecosystem remains as the rest has been converted into other forest types and land uses, along with being utilized for other purposes.
Even in its reduced state, the longleaf pine tree range remains home to an impressive roster of animals including rare and threatened species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, Bachman’s sparrow, northern bobwhite, and gopher tortoise. This fire-adapted ecosystem also boasts amazing biodiversity, populated with almost 900 endemic plant species.
Additionally, longleaf pine forests serve other important functions. By being quite resilient to drought, wind, and pests, these pinelands help to protect communities from strong storms by serving as buffers to military training bases and sites for recreational parks and other public outdoor facilities.
Given its many virtues, it is not surprising that longleaf forests have found wide support in recent years from government agencies, private landowners, nonprofits, and the public. According to Leopoldo “Leo” Miranda of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “It would be hard to overstate how important the longleaf pine ecosystem is. If you love the outdoors, you appreciate the longleaf.”
Since the NFWF began its Longleaf Stewardship Fund in 2012, it has contributed over $42 million into various projects that have resulted in adding nearly 125,000 acres, as well as improving almost 2 million additional acres, of longleaf pine forest. Its significance exceeds the mere acreage number. This restoration work is, in the words of Kevin Norton, the acting chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, “foundational to rural economies across the Southeast.”
And if you are wondering what is the importance of having good research numbers regarding trees’ carbon capture abilities, consider this: a study released last year revealed that the International Panel on Climate Change, the recognized global source for carbon sequestration measurements, had underestimated sequestration rates in young forests by 32 percent worldwide, primarily due to outmoded data mapping and collection techniques.