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Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas Begins Longleaf Pine Restoration Efforts

Story by Beverly Moseley

In years to come, members of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas won't have to travel far to gather the treasured longleaf pine needles used to make their traditional handmade baskets. And the wildlife in the area are going to enjoy improved habitat.

"Tribal council members recently enrolled upwards of 400 acres of suitable longleaf pine production land into the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) administered by the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)."

'This is something pushing it forward and making it a reality. When the opportunity came we went along with it," said Kyle Williams, Tribal Council vice chairman of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, after the WHIP contract signing recently in Livingston.

A partnership focused on reforesting longleaf pine on Tribal lands has grown over the years between the Tribe, NRCS, the Texas Forest Service and NRCS' Resource Conservation & Development program. This is the first time the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas has signed a contract with NRCS as part of a Farm Bill program.
 
NRCS' role will be to provide technical assistance and guidance through the life of the five-year contract. The Texas Forest Service also will provide site management assistance. Conservation practices will include firebreaks, forest site preparation, forest stand improvement, prescribed burning and tree establishment.

Carlos Bullock, Tribal Council chairman of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, spoke about the cultural significance of enrolling the acreage at the signing. He said longleaf pines are deeply entrenched in the Tribe's history and culture. The tradition and skill of making the handmade baskets has been passed on from one generation to the next since the 1700s.

However, the loss of longleaf pine plantations in the area has left tribal members traveling out of state to find pine needles.""

"We have just an acre of pine now," Bullock said.

Experts estimate that only 3 percent of the original 90 million acres of longleaf pine ecosystems in the United States remain. These ecosystems are home to 29 species that are federally listed as threatened, endangered or both.

"Research tells us that the longleaf pine ecosystem is one of the most diverse ecosystems outside the tropics and is in a state of decline in both ecosystem area and health," said Don Gohmert, NRCS state conservationist for Texas.

There are six different sites on the reservation that will be reforested with longleaf pine seedlings. The smallest pine plantation is an estimated six acres. The largest is about 139 acres. It is possible to plant upwards of 700 seedlings an acre.

Longleaf pines grow slow compared to Loblolly or Slash pines. A grass stage seedling might be a decade old, but can be only a few inches tall and look like a tuft of grass. Rapid tree growth doesn't begin until the young sapling stage.

However, during this time an added benefit will be the restoration of native grasses, plants and wildlife habitat in the reforested areas. Williams said future plans might include providing recreational activities such as hiking trails on the smaller pine plantations.

"It can improve wildlife habitat for this area and also bring back some opportunities for cultural activities that American Indians have utilized in the past," said Ronald Harris, NRCS district conservationist.

WHIP is a voluntary program available to private and Tribal landowners. NRCS works with landowners to develop wildlife habitats such as upland, wetland and aquatic, through this program. The longleaf pine program pays landowners a percentage of the approved costs to implement conservation practices that enhance, maintain or restore East Texas' longleaf pine ecosystem.

Land suitable for longleaf pine production in Anderson, Angelina, Cherokee, Hardin, Houston, Jasper, Liberty, Montgomery, Nacogdoches, Newton, Polk, Sabine, San Augustine, San Jacinto, Shelby, Trinity, Tyler and Walker is given high priority application status. Suitable land outside the high priority counties also will be considered.

The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas recently enrolled upwards of 400 acres of suitable longleaf pine production land into the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) administered by the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service. Sitting from left to right (front row) at the contract signing are Alabama-Coushatta Tribal Council Chairman Carlos Bullock, Ronald Harris, NRCS district conservationist, Kyle Williams, Tribal Council vice chairman and Jim Rogers, NRCS wildlife biologist. Sitting from left to right (back row) are John Davidson, NRCS-Resource Conservation &Development coordinator, Steve Cooke, TFS district forester, Tribal member Kerwin Williams, Maynard Williams, TFS, Rusty Smith, TFS and Tribal Forestry Director Don Sylestine.

Longleaf pines grow slow compared to Loblolly or Slash pines. A grass stage seedling might be a decade old, but can be only a few inches tall and look like a tuft of grass.

Ronald Harris, NRCS district conservationist, stands among sapling stage longleaf pines. This is the rapid growth stage for the longleaf pines.

Longleaf pines grow slow compared to Loblolly or Slash pines. A grass stage seedling might be a decade old, but can be only a few inches tall and look like a tuft of grass.

The understory of a longleaf pine plantation can offer optimum habitat for foraging plants and wildlife. The vibrant colored American beautyberry plant is desired by wildlife such as deer and many bird species. �The open understory promotes a diversity of plants that are beneficial to many species such as quail, turkey, white-tailed deer, songbirds, insects and some threatened and endangered species,� says Jim Rogers, NRCS wildlife biologist.

A mature longleaf pine tree reaches to the sky.