Ford

Standing tall, and green, for N.C.

Staff WriterJanuary 11, 2009 

We had some fun with our Wednesday "Pine needles" editorial, written by my colleague Jim Jenkins and lampooning North Carolina's sacred Order of the Long Leaf Pine, which is intended to be awarded by the governor to Tar Heels of high accomplishment and service to the state. While most of us are still waiting for our induction papers, and not holding our breath until they arrive, the award appears to have been spread around pretty generously.

One appreciative caller -- it happened to have been former state Chief Justice Burley Mitchell -- noted that not only were he and his wife recipients of the honor, but so was their bulldog, Bruno.

I'm sure Mitchell didn't mean to knock all the fine folks who've been enrolled in the Order, and I didn't get around to asking him whether he was just kidding about Bruno (the chief does have a keen sense of humor).

But maybe our new governor, once she figures out how to keep the ship of state afloat amid the gales of a recession, can rejigger the ceremonial machinery to make clear that membership in the Order of the Long Leaf Pine ought to be super-special.

After all, it's named for a super-special tree.

The pine, generically, is North Carolina's state tree. But it is the long leaf that is the most distinctive, the most noble, once the most valuable and now likely the most endangered.

If mention of the long leaf pine brings to mind the Sandhills, you're getting the picture. Think the vicinity of Pinehurst and Southern Pines, extending onto Fort Bragg -- that's where these pines still are common. Their range, however, has drastically shrunk. Where once long leafs and their associated ecosystem covered some 90 million acres in the southeastern U.S., today less than 2 million acres of long leaf forest remain throughout the region.

What happened? Massive, relentless logging. The wood of the long leaf is dense and fine, and from North Carolina's early days long leaf stands were ravaged for timber used to build ships and structures. Frank Page, founder of the town of Cary, moved his logging operation to Moore County in the late 1800s and took out pine trees by the zillions.

Going back to colonial times, the pines had been tapped for their pitch and tar, so-called naval stores used to make wooden ships watertight and to coat the riggings. Turpentine was a by-product. But hacking into the trees made them vulnerable to disease and was another factor in their decline.

Regular fires also help sustain the long leaf by burning away the ground cover that can prevent the seeds -- released from giant cones -- from germinating. The trees themselves, once they reach a modest height, are quite fire-resistant. But with more people living in long leaf zones, fires were suppressed, the forest understory became choked with other vegetation and plant litter, and not as many pines would reproduce.

At the Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve on the outskirts of Southern Pines, controlled fires are set to help keep the understory clear. Trunks of the long leafs tend to be charred up to six feet or so; wiregrass is a typical ground cover in the long leaf groves. Yet there can be an amazing diversity in these groves as well. A federal Fish & Wildlife Service write-up tells of a Sandhills plot 100 feet square in which 124 plant species were found.

Mature long leafs can reach 120 feet. When my wife and I took our New Year's Day hike at Weymouth Woods, the extravagant needles -- up to 15 inches -- actually sparkled in the bright sun against a cobalt sky.

With the official state toast beginning, "Here's to the land of the long leaf pine," there's no doubt where this tree ranks in North Carolinians' esteem and of its importance to the state's heritage.

But how often it happens that a prized species or place or natural feature comes under such duress that we risk losing our connection to it, our sense that it's a familiar element of our surroundings, part of what makes home, home. The character of our world can change pretty quickly unless we take care to preserve what we value.

Our new governor, with no shortage of challenges and responsibilities on her to-do list, also has this one: to be steward-in-charge of North Carolina's natural resources.

The long leaf pine may no longer anchor the state's wood products industry, but it remains an ecological anchor. If its numbers can be kept from dwindling even further, that will show diligence in safeguarding resources whose loss would alter North Carolina's character in ways all of us would regret. The young long leaf pine enthusiastically growing outside Beverly Perdue's Capitol office window ought to be a good reminder to her of what's at stake.

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at steve.ford@newsobserver.com.

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