Longleaf Pines Making a Comeback at Big Thicket National Preserve

Two of the volunteers who worked to plant longleaf pines in the park. NPS photo.

The Big Thicket National Preserve is often called a "Biological Crossroads of North America," and a key component of the Thicket is the longleaf pine. Most of those trees were lost to logging and other human activity prior to the park's establishment, but a recent volunteer effort is helping in a comeback by the longleaf.

The historic Big Thicket once encompassed some four million acres of southeast Texas, part of a vast forest stretching from Virginia to eastern Texas. Longleaf pine once covered an estimated 70 million acres in the southern U.S., but it's estimated only about three percent of that ecosystem remains today. The stands of towering longleaf pines were a magnet for the lumbering industry, but once the longleaf had been logged, the area was often replanted with the faster-growing slash or loblolly pine.

That makes economic sense if your mission is to grow trees as a cash crop, but now that parts of the Thicket are protected in the park, there's a different priority. The longleaf pine ecosystem provides habitat for rare species including the red-cockaded woodpecker and Texas trailing phlox.

Efforts to return the longleaf pine to former sites got a recent boost when volunteers planted 13,026 longleaf pine seedlings in a 52-acre area in the park's Turkey Creek Unit and a 10-acre area in the Lance Rosier Unit. The event was part of "a day of service and a new forest to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and victims of the Tucson tragedy" during the MLK weekend and holiday.

Volunteers from the Houston Sierra Club and Big Thicket Association helped restore a wetland pine savannah area in the Lance Rosier Unit. According to a park spokesman, "The hard clay soils in the treatment area put up a good fight, but the group proved up to the challenge."

In the northern part of the park's Turkey Creek Unit, volunteers from the National Parks Conservation Association, Magnolia Garden Club, Houston Garden Club, River Oaks Garden Club and Big Thicket Association pitched in to help restore longleaf pine forest habitat.

What makes this park unique? According to an NPS publication on the Big Thicket,

What is so extraordinary is not the rarity or abundance of its life forms, but how many species coexist here in its combination of southeastern swamps, eastern forests, central plains, and southwest deserts. For example, bogs sit near arid sandhills and eastern bluebirds nest near roadrunners. There are more than 100 trees and shrubs species, which provide habitat to a diverse array of wildlife, including 300 migratory and nesting bird species; over 1,000 flowering plants, including 26 ferns and allies, 20 orchids and four of North America's five types of insect-eating plants. Fifty reptile species include a small, rarely seen population of alligators and snapping turtles. Amphibious frogs and toads abound.

Like much of the country, the Big Thicket region has experienced some unusually cold weather in recent days, but as a general rule, winter and early spring are ideal times for hiking and other outdoor activities. You'll find information to help plan a visit on the park's website.