ISLE OF WIGHT -- Lytton Musselman walked on an emerald carpet of ferns, under a soaring canopy of pines.
"You won't see this anywhere else in Virginia," said Musselman, chairman of Old Dominion University's biology department.
He's right. To see what much of Tidewater looked like before logging and other human intervention destroyed 1.5 million acres of primeval Virginia forest, you've got to know the back roads around Zuni.
There you'll find the Zuni Pine Barrens, part of the Blackwater Ecologic Preserve, and the only protected stand of longleaf pine in Virginia.
Old-growth forests of longleaf pine once covered more than 90 million acres from Virginia to Florida to east Texas. That was before Jamestown and Roanoke Island. Before fields of cotton and tobacco. Before the South cleared most of its virgin timber after the Civil War. Before highways.
At most, 3 million acres of longleaf remain, most of it in Florida, Georgia and Alabama. But nowhere is it more threatened, scientists say, than in Virginia, the northern limit of its range.
A revived interest in saving the longleaf at this point, among a handful of people has led to the planting of thousands of transplanted seedlings in Virginia in the past few years. But experts estimate that at most 800 acres of mature Virginia longleaf pine remain, most of that in the 300-acre preserve in Zuni.
By the start of the 20th century, the tree was almost non-existent in the state. Ridgepole straight, longleaf was perfect for ships' masts. Flowing with rosin, longleaf formed the basis for the "naval stores" industry that created tar, pitch and turpentine. Prized for its dense wood "heart pine," as most people know it longleaf was used in furniture, flooring and shipbuilding up and down the East Coast.
Musselman calls it "the tree that built Tidewater."
Hope is lost that a significant stretch of the incredibly diverse longleaf forest called a savanna because of its open, grassy nature could ever be recovered in Virginia. Longleaf seeds don't germinate unless the forest floor has been cleared by fire. These days fire mostly visits Virginia forests in highly controlled burns, and forest fires are quickly extinguished.
But hope remains that a few stands of longleaf will live on, in commercial plantings and in places like the Zuni Pine Barrens and the Joseph Pines Preserve, a 100-acre site in Sussex County where a non-profit group dreams of restoring a native longleaf savanna. People like Musselman and Phil Sheridan, caretaker of the Joseph Pines Preserve, want a protected place where future generations can glimpse a native longleaf forest.
"It's a snapshot," said Musselman, continuing his walk through the Pine Barrens, where he serves as curator and has overseen controlled burns to keep the longleaf thriving. "It's a blurry picture at best. The edges are fuzzy. But it's all we've got."
Sheridan paced through the trails of the Joseph Pines Preserve, explaining what can be done about the demise of thelongleaf forest. He paused only to point out yet another species that would thrive under a longleaf canopy blue stem grass or his beloved pitcher plant or to rave about the blueberries he was picking and eating.
A banker-turned-biologist, Sheridan might be the most energetic of the scientists, foresters and enthusiasts that make up the small band of Virginians keyed in to the longleaf's plight. He has devoted years to researching longleaf in Virginia, to the point of counting the number of individual trees. If Sheridan is the movement's promoter, he considers it one of his chief tasks to find the movement's philanthropist.
His non-profit organization, Meadowview Biological Research Station, has a long-range plan to plant and care for longleaf at the Joseph Pines site but needs a way to fund it. There's no money to be made in setting up a nature preserve. His plan calls for about $115,000, and in a few years he's raised about $10,000.
"We could really do a lot with the right resources," Sheridan sighed. "In Virginia, we don't have good pine savannas. It is, essentially, gone. But we can bring it back."
Sheridan's commitment to longleaf pine is like explorer George Mallory's take on why he would want to climb Mt. Everest: Because it's there. Or in the case of longleaf, because it was here.
Sheridan wants people to know what southeast Virginia looked like. He wants the long-leaf to grow, but he also wants all the plants associated with it to make a comeback. Pitcher plants, which grow in bogs at the edge of a longleaf forest, exist in only four sites in the wild in Virginia. Sheridan doesn't want to lose them.
'Getting on the Ark'
"In a way, it's like getting on the Ark," he said of trying to bring back all the native species in a longleaf system. "We want to reset the clock."
Resetting the clock in this case would mean the impossible undoing centuries of economic progress because the story of the longleaf's demise is also the story of burgeoning industry in the South.
Early shipping records from the ports in Norfolk and Hampton offer a glimpse into the "naval stores" industry. The industry extracted the rosin from longleaf pines in order to make tar, pitch and turpentine. And though most people associate naval stores with North Carolina workers would get "tar heels" working with the substances it began in Virginia.
Longleaf did not grow extensively north of the James River. But the people at Jamestown quickly realized the economic boon to be found on the south side, according to Cecil Frost, a North Carolina ecologist and one of the most respected experts on longleaf.
In 1622, according to Frost, John Pory traveled south from Jamestown into what is now North Carolina. Pory wrote of passing through a "great forest of Pynes 15 or 16 myle broad and above 60 mile long, which will serve well for Masts for Shipping, and for pitch and tarre, when we shall come to extend our plantations to those borders."
"These were the great pine barrens of western Isle of Wight and Nansemond counties," Frost wrote. Longleaf forests also spread out east to the old Norfolk County and west through Southampton, Surry and Greensville counties. Frost also believes the tree thrived up the Eastern Shore to the Maryland border.
Records of logging are spotty. But records of overseas shipments of tar, pitch and turpentine show that exports picked up heavily in the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, Frost estimates that longleaf pine was on the verge of extinction in Virginia by 1850.
Vast forests remained throughout the South, but the naval stores industry and logging only became more efficient as the 19th century progressed. In the second half of the century, the South needed money more than its trees.
By 1930, when forest managers set a new policy of suppressing forest fires, only a handful of survivor longleaf pines remained in Virginia. Because of longleaf's absolute reliance on fire the fire clears out competitive plants but doesn't harm longleaf that sealed the tree's fate.
Fire suppression notwithstanding, prospects for the longleaf pine look better than they have in decades, if only because more people are aware of the tree. Frost has pointed out that people make an uproar about the loss of wetlands in the Southeast, but hardly anyone has heard about the loss of 97 percent of the original longleaf forest.
Bill Apperson with the Virginia Department of Forestry is shepherding the department's foray into longleaf re-establishment. Similar programs thrive in North Carolina and Georgia. Apperson has guided landowners to plant nearly 15,000 longleaf seedlings in the past few years. He and Dwight Stallard, who oversees the department's nurseries, have set up the first longleaf orchard in the state in Sussex County. Once trees mature there, they will produce longleaf cones and seed for decades to come, ensuring a supply of seedlings.
Near Franklin, Hugh Hassell recently made the first longleaf planting on Virginia, International Paper-owned land in a long time. Hassell recently moved to the company's Courtland office after working in North Carolina, where the tree is more prevalent. He is studying hundreds of acres where he hopes to plant longleaf in the coming years.
Back at the Pine Barrens, Musselman took one final turn under the pine canopy before leaving for the day. The preserve was burned months earlier, leaving it in a remarkably open state. Sunlight pierced the boughs to produce a dappling of light and shade on the knee-high green ferns.
Since Musselman started controlled burns years earlier, the preserve had revealed some of its secrets. For one, the white-fringed orchid had reappeared. The most recent fire also opened up the ground's sandy soils to air and light, a prerequisite for long-leaf seeds to germinate. Musselman, a red hat perched atop on his white-bearded face, scoured the ground for seedlings, a sign of a recovering forest.
Mature longleaf pines exist elsewhere in Virginia, amid stands of loblolly and other types of pine in Suffolk and Southampton. But none are likely to see fire. The only known, naturally reproducing longleaf are the ones that towered over Musselman.
"Look at that!" Musselman said, pointing to what looked like a clump of grass. It was a longleaf, a few months old, on a site that would allow it to thrive until maturity. "Isn't that wonderful?"
Patrick Lynch in a reporter for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., a Tribune Publishing newspaper.