ALBANY, Ga. -- When Europeans began settling the South, a blanket of longleaf pines stretched 60 million acres from Virginia to Texas. About four centuries later, only 600,000 acres remain and a federal planting program designed to revive the species has been chopped down by a seedling shortage.
Longleaf pines were the region's original pines, but, over the years, the trees have been axed to make room for homes, roads and farms. Meanwhile, other pine species -- some that came from other regions -- have crowded the longleaf pines out of forests they once dominated.
Unique to the Southeast, longleaf pines provide homes to dozens of plants and animals, including the endangered red cockaded woodpecker and the indigo snake.
Last year, the government, through the Conservation Reserve Program, offered monthly payments to landowners -- from $30 to $55 per acre -- to plant longleaf pines on former farmland. But no one consulted Mother Nature.
Longleaf seed production peaks about every five to eight years. Currently, production is in a slump.
"There's very little longleaf seed available," said forester Russ Pohl, who works in the Georgia Forestry Commission's reforestation office in Macon. "So even if you had the nursery space, it would be hard to find the seed."
The commission's tree nurseries will produce about 2.5 million longleaf seedlings this year. Georgia landowners need about 37 million, and production at public and private nurseries "won't even meet half of that," Pohl predicted.
Rick Hatten, the state's CRP coordinator, said 2,700 Georgia landowners have agreed to plant 74,000 acres of longleaf pines.
Many of the landowners won't be able to get seedlings until next year.
"It's going to delay some of the planting and some of the landowners might lose a little enthusiasm," Hatten said.
The CRP was started in 1984 to reduce soil erosion. The U.S. Department of Agriculture paid farmers to plant pines in the South and grasses in the West.
Through last year, more than 8,500 Georgia landowners had signed up, planting about 350,000 acres in loblolly, slash and other types of pines.
Clients of Albany forester Doug Hall will get their longleaf seedlings because his company anticipated the shortage and locked in a supply.
Hall said F&W Forestry Services Inc. made arrangements with tree nurseries for enough seedlings to plant 1,400 acres. Albany-based F&W is the Southeast's largest forest consulting business.
The shortage is causing uncertainty for many landowners, Hall said.
"A lot of people have called me that are not our clients who want trees," Hall said. He refers them to an entrepreneur who anticipated the problem and had 1 million seedlings grown under contract. But even that supply may have dried up by now.
State nurseries in Georgia, Alabama and Florida predict tight supplies of all types of pine seedlings.
Officials blame the drought last summer that killed many newly planted seedlings. They also point out that the industry has not fully recovered from a seedling shortage last year. Landowners who had to scale back reforestation were hoping to catch up this year.
R. Wayne Bell, president of Odenville, Ala.-based International Forest Co., said his company boosted seedling production by 20 percent, to 150 million trees, and has established two new nurseries in anticipation of a second year of tight supplies.
Nevertheless, the company's entire crop of 11 million longleaf seedlings was sold out in May, and there was a waiting list for 5 million more, in case of cancellations, the company said.
The situation is so desperate that by May, landowners had already contracted for more than half of International Forest's projected production -- six months before the fall planting begins, the company said.
Bob Lazenby, the Georgia Forestry Commission's executive director, said he doesn't believe the shortage will have a major impact on Georgia's $19.4-billion-a-year forest industry. But it could mean a setback for individual landowners.
"They're going to have to wait a year and lose at least one growing season," he said.