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Taking an Environmental Place-Based Approach for Longleaf Pine Ecosystems

Taking an Environmental Place-Base Approach to Accomplish Longleaf Pine Ecosystem Goals for NC NRCS

LLP close Up ImageFor the past five years, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in North Carolina has been working with local partners and landowners to implement conservation practices to help restore and maintain the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) ecosystem across its historical range within the state.  The historical longleaf pine range extends across eastern North Carolina covering nearly 14 million acres.  This ecosystem, when managed correctly, is one of the most unique ecosystems in the world and is classified as “critically endangered”.  According to literature, the species richness of the longleaf pine ecosystem is highly diverse for a temperate woodland and has been compared to that of tropical rainforests.  It is estimated that longleaf pine forests provide suitable habitat for as many as 300 different herbaceous plant species, 60 percent of the amphibian and reptiles species found in the southeast, and it includes the habitat for at least 122 endangered or threatened plant and animal species.  In fact, there are over 30 plant and animal species associated with longleaf pine forests that can be found on the federally threatened and endangered species list.   

Earlier efforts in North Carolina, led by NRCS, focused on improving and expanding the longleaf pine ecosystem within the entire state historic range.  This was accomplished by promoting technical and financial resources through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Farm Bill easement program and partnerships.  While success was accomplished with this broad-based approach, it was difficult to leverage resources and focus attention toward critical longleaf pine forests. This was especially true considering the size of the historical range within the state, available technical and financial assistance, and limited personnel across the range.

Last year, North Carolina NRCS decided to take an environmental place-based approach towards program implementation to help reach the goals of both the America’s Longleaf Pine Restoration Initiative and the NRCS Longleaf Pine Initiative.  These initiatives strive to protect, restore or enhance an additional 4.6 million acres of longleaf pine ecosystems in the natural longleaf pine range by 2025.  The environmental place-based approach enables NC NRCS to focus goals at the local level.  It was decided through a collaborative partnership that the growth, stability and resiliency of the longleaf pine ecosystem in North Carolina needs to be the ultimate goal of the program.  A resilient ecosystem is more stable and able to maintain or recover its composition, structure and functions during natural or anthropogenic disturbances or changes.  This focused approach helped leverage resources and focus efforts in key target areas, reduced gaps in assistance and minimize duplication of efforts among the partners.  Our partners were engaged and involved through the NC NRCS State Technical Advisory Committee and the NC NRCS State Technical Advisory Wildlife/Forestry Subcommittee.  While these gatherings were critical to bring everyone to the table at the same time, the foundation of this effort was strengthened thru open and regular communications between NC NRCS and its partners.  As a result, the partners played a critical role in defining NC NRCS priority areas, outlining connectivity between existing tracts of private lands and identifying known longleaf pine forests blocks of public lands that are already under protection.  One of the most critical components of this collaborative effort was finding a balance between the goals, objectives and mission of each partner.  However, "when leaders of different elements with different roles align to a collective effort, they create the greatest amount of synergy to achieve the desired results" (Army Doctrine Reference Publication 6-22).  Partners at the table included, USDA NRCS, USDA FSA, NWTF, NC Prescribed Fire Council, the Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, NC Wildlife Resources Commission, NC Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, NC Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation, National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, NC Longleaf Coalition, and America’s Longleaf.

Working through our partners, utilizing a focused environmental place-based approach and a resiliency (science-based) model developed by the North Carolina Nature Conservancy, NC NRCS was able to target efforts to a high priority area of approximately seven million acres within the historic range.  This seven million acres contain some of the most critical and suitable land in the state.  It is comprised of existing tracts of longleaf pine forests, identifies potential properties that can potentially serve as corridors that have been fragmented or isolated and ultimately it can help improve the resilience of this ecosystem (refer to map below).    

North Carolina Prioirty Area MapBy identifying the priority areas, NC NRCS is able to better target financial and technical assistance offered through its programs to better support the overarching longleaf pine goals.  Initial screening will determine whether an application is considered a high, medium or low priority.  Applications approved for program assistance that fall within the state priority area will receive higher ranking consideration.  Applications are awarded funding based on responses to ranking questions, which ultimately bring the highest scoring (a.k.a. most beneficial) applications to the top.  Whether an application falls within the low, medium or high priority area, they are screened and have the potential to be funded. 

There can be many benefits gained from this approach.  First, by taking an environmental place-based approach it helps leverage partners.  This strengthens the partnerships and helps establish a connection within and at the local level.  It also encourages buy-in and excitement about a unified voice.  The approach also builds capacity to deliver targeted technical and financial assistance and defines each partner’s role in in the effort.  NC NRCS was able to commit 90% of its EQIP allocations for longleaf pine within the priority area in fiscal year 2016 and enroll more than 3,873 acres under EQIP contracts to implement conservation practices such as burning, tree/shrub site preparation, tree/shrub establishment, firebreak, early successional habitat delivery/ management, forest stand improvements, conservation cover and Conservation Activity Plan (CAP) 106 Forest Management Plans.

Many of the species that have evolved in the longleaf pine ecosystem depend upon continuous, non-fragmented habitat. By prioritizing a more specific target focused effort the connectivity can be improved and the stability and resilience of the system can be improved across a larger area.  By identifying a priority area through an analytical and data supported approach and incorporating our partners in the decision making process, we create a greater accountability and means to achieve success.