- Associated Press - Saturday, June 4, 2016

LEESVILLE, La. (AP) - The mission to increase the longleaf pine population to 8 million acres is going to take an “all-lands” approach, and the shared goal is bringing federal agencies and private landowners together.

“That’s a big goal, and it’s going to take an all-lands approach,” Eddie Taylor, forest supervisor for the Kisatchie National Forest, said at a press conference held among longleaf pine trees in the Kisatchie.

The Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership is an initiative between USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Forest Service to increase and enhance longleaf pine acreage in the Kisatchie National Forest and adjacent private and Fort Polk lands.

“We have joined forces with all of our partners … to do this initiative and to enhance and grow longleaf pines,” said Jim Caldwell, public affairs officer with the Kisatchie National Forest.

Eight million acres might sound like a lofty goal, but longleaf pine once covered 90 million acres stretching from Virginia to East Texas, Taylor said. That number has been reduced to about 3.4 million acres today.

There are several reasons for that. It’s highly valued for wood products, having been used for railroad ties, poles and now flooring, Taylor said.

But longleaf pine also is home to a variety of species, included red-cockaded woodpeckers and Louisiana pine snakes that could be seen Thursday. A typical well managed longleaf pine forest will be open and parklike with a lot of grasses and wildflowers, according to an NRCS release.

“It’s one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world,” Taylor said. “There are thousands of species out here. There are plants out here that may lead to medical miracles. We just don’t know.”

Taylor and Caldwell joined others from various partner agencies in the forest to announce the three-year project.

“The longleaf pine is special,” said Kevin Norton, state conservationist with NRCS. “We’re at the western edge. There’s no prettier longleaf than in the Calcasieu Ranger District.”

They stood by a map showing about 2 million acres in the project that are a mix of federal - U.S. Forest Service and Fort Polk - and privately owned lands.

“From the NRCS perspective, we’re focused on extending beyond federal land,” Norton said. “We have an opportunity to take historically longleaf (lands) and create incentives and return them to their original (plants). … We can do livestock grazing and stimulate that part of agriculture.”

Private landowners are an important piece in the partnership.

“This kind of landscape needs man’s management,” said David Daigle, who manages longleaf pine tracts in Southwest Louisiana. “It evolved that way a long time. … It takes management. That’s where NRCS really comes in.”

The agency provides financial and technical assistance for that management. That includes prescribed burning to reduce the risk of forest fire and remove invasive species like Chinese tallow trees as well as putting in measures to allow for livestock grazing on the property.

“We’ve recently learned soil quality is impacted by grazing animals on that land,” Daigle said. “Grazing properly to mimic the native grazing is what needs to happen.”

Over the next few years about $500,000 from NRCS and the Forest Service will go toward contracts for prescribed burning, water development and fencing for rotational grazing, and other restoration and regeneration efforts, Norton said. Startup funds for the project are coming from recent timber sales of longleaf in the area.

Daigle said he is happy to be among the partners in the project. It’s both a blessing and a duty.

“I’ve been around the woods a long time,” Daigle said. “I can’t imagine a better place to live and grow cattle, timber, kids. It’s a land really with too many blessings to count and we need to take care of it.”

The partnership began in 2014, and each year new three-year projects are selected. This is one of 11 new projects being launched this year.

According to the agencies, major goals of the project are to: implement forest health and resiliency across public and private boundaries, reduce the threat of wildfire to local communities, enhance land management to improve habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker and the Louisiana pine snake, improve water quality by restoring the native vegetation, plant new acres of longleaf pine and restore the natural ecosystem and provide technical and financial assistance to landowners adjacent and near public lands.

Private landowners interested in participating can apply at NRCS field offices, which are located in every parish, or online at www.la.nrcs.usda.gov, which also has a field office locator.

Other partners include the Department of Defense, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, National Wild Turkey Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Louisiana Forestry Association and USDA APHIS-Wildlife Services, according to a release.

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Information from: Alexandria Daily Town Talk, https://www.thetowntalk.com

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