St. Tammany Parish’s number one renewable natural resource has always been pine trees. Since the early 1700s, cutting them down and processing them into useful products have been major local industries.
The Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) comprised the original forest that blanketed the Southeast’s coastal plain. These huge trees and the ecology of the plants and animals that surrounded them were what Native Americans lived in and adapted to over thousands of years. The first Europeans and then the Americans that later migrated from the Thirteen Colonies logged them to use as the base material for processes and products that met the needs of their time.
- They used pine for lumber. They would fell a tree, saw it into beams and planks and ship it off to build a house, a city or a ship.
- Staves were cut, formed and bound together with iron bands into barrels, a basic mode of storage and transportation for all kinds of commodities.
- Stakes and shingles required the selection of a short section of log with a straight grain and then the use of a sharp-edged tool called a “froe” struck by a mallet to cleave the log into these products.
- They would also burn pine chunks underneath a carefully managed blanket of dirt so that they smoldered and made charcoal. This slow process burned off obnoxious volatiles and left a carbonized, concentrated energy source used in cooking and heating.
- Masts and poles were made only from the strongest, straightest timber that appeared to be without any serious defects.
- Tar, pitch, resin and turpentine were refined from the copious amounts of sap that bled and collected from the Longleaf. These items were called Naval Stores and were vital for preserving rope, sails, wooden boats and other things.
As the nation grew the Longleaf pine forest ended up being largely depleted by the turn of the Twentieth Century and was replaced with the faster growing Slash and Loblolly varieties of pine. Today, vast pine plantations of these trees are used to produce lumber products and wood fiber that is essentially pulped or liquefied wood for use in a multitude of paper-related products.
Now things have gone full circle. The latest thinking is that the old, original forest ecology of Longleaf that evolved here over hundreds of thousands of years was actually best suited to this environment and may prove to be more resilient to the stresses of climate change. There is a movement afoot to restore this ecology and who knows — maybe our great-grandkids will live amongst forests of Longleaf Pine.
A young Longleaf pine, note the long needles. The new growth spire on top is called a “candle.”