The longleaf pine paradigm
Trees are potentially long-lived organisms that are defining components in forests and savannas. It is far too easy for relatively short-lived people to assume that observed forest structure and function represents a “natural” static state that should be used as a measure of function or restoration. Almost all recently published papers (including my own) on longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) tell the story that longleaf pines were once the dominant tree species throughout the southeastern U.S. coastal plain, that longleaf pine forests experienced a frequent fire regime with fire return intervals of 3 to 7 years, and that these ecosystems have among the highest biological diversity in North America.
The longleaf pine story can be classified as a scientific paradigm that directly or indirectly informs management and restoration efforts of “natural” longleaf forests throughout the region. It is likely, however, that no human has ever observed and documented a self-organized longleaf pine ecosystem. During the past 15,000 years, North American forests have experienced profound climate change, extinctions of large herbivores, and the invasion of the exotic human species (Homo sapiens). Management schemes that are designed to optimize quail habitat, eliminate co-existing oaks, or produce a low canopy cover savanna, have all been questionably touted as reflections of the paradigmatic “natural” longleaf forest.