The longleaf pine ecosystem in the United States has shrunk from 90 million acres to just 3.4 million over time. Consequently, nearly thirty animal species that rely on it for habitat are now endangered or threatened. Natural longleaf pine forests have been replaced in the landscape by development and plantations of loblolly, slash and sand pine. What’s left of the existing longleaf pine range has been degraded by the exclusion of fire.
Much like rain forests must be sustained by rain, longleaf pine is a “fire forest.” Fire has a renewing quality for longleaf pine trees and the plants and animals that call the longleaf pine forests home. Fire removes debris and fuels, allowing native plants to regenerate and re-sprout with vigorous new growth. Fire also controls plants that are not as resilient to frequent fire and may invade the longleaf pine forests. Having evolved with fire, longleaf pine maintains a competitive advantage in the face of burning.
To reverse the degradation of longleaf pine forests, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is partnering with the Student Conservation Association and US Forest Service to recruit and train the “fire starters of tomorrow.” The Fire Mentoring Program provides controlled burn training, on-the-job experience, and career opportunities for underserved youth.
Fire Mentoring Program participants are recruited through Job Corps, a Department of Labor initiative that offers free education and vocational training to economically disadvantaged young people aged 16-24. Support from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) has helped anchor one Fire Mentoring Program crew in a priority longleaf pine landscape in southeast Georgia and northeastern Florida. This crew is a pivotal part of a larger range-wide initiative that has placed more than 50 members of the program on crews across eight states over the past four years. It’s not only the longleaf pine forests that benefit, but also the young people involved. Take a look at just two of the many success stories.