I live in an area of the southeast that was dominated by longleaf pines prior to European settlement. The reason it was dominated by longleaf pine was because the native Americans used to start wildfires that would kill off the hardwoods. Longleaf pine is fire resistant. When white settlers arrived in this area they found open forest of pure longleaf pines and it's own ecosystem.
The Europeans did not like wildfires and stopped them. The result was forest that were increasingly taken over by oaks,maples, etc. because longleaf pines don't compete well against them.
So my question is, is the longleaf pine ecosystem what nature intended? It was an ecosystem created by humans. Or is a forest of hardwoods nature's intentions, because it's what happens when mankind leaves things alone? If one were to think of the forest back about 400 years ago, hardwoods would almost be considered invasive, even though they are native.
This is an interesting question and I think it's one that bears some thought. Strictly speaking, when the Europeans (raising my hand as one who's family came both early and late in the history of the US) stopped the burning, they allowed nature to move back in and reassert herself. However, the longleaf pine being a native, has its claim on at least part of the ecosystem. The fact that we now fight wildfires rather than letting them run their course probaby efffects that area where the pines would survive.
Well my own personal theory is this, a lot of the hardwoods of the southern coastal plain have evolved to be fast growing and early seed producing. Trees such as water oak, laurel oak, red maple, etc. There purpose is to live long enough to produce seed before the next fire comes through. However when fire is excluded these species can become quite weedy. Even though they are native to the area, does one consider them invasive because they are now thriving more than they were meant to? My theory may be wrong but it is a question that stays in my mind.
The hardwoods are probably what was there originally...but, not only did native americans control the hardwoods by fire..so did mother nature. Some areas are more prone to fires than others.
I personally think your theory makes a lot of sense, Escambiaguy.
There's a great article in this month's discover magazine about fire and fire suppression, and what each of them do to the environement. Though it deals with fires in the Amerian West, the basic principals apply most places in the US.
The fast growing and heavy-seed-producing-when-relatively-young species probably have some evolutionary stake in surviving through any type of disturbance (is this a spot-on definition of a pioneer species?). Fire is just one; you could include drought; hurricanes; flooding; heavy predation by exploding insect populations; and there are probably others in the coastal plain.
Elsewhere, it might include tornadoes, volcanic eruptions/lava flows/ash falls, tsunamis, and other natural events. OK, some of these happen seldom enough that "evolution" may not be a fit description, but I think you get my (continental) drift.
I am a bit confused by this thread. Perhaps its geography, but in this area Hardwood forests thirved with and were created by fire (not killed of by it) Hardwoods like Oak and Hickory have thick deep bark are fire resistant.
In north Florida, it's not merely pine versus hardwood. The slash pine (P. elliotti I think) and the loblolly pine (P. taeda) are competing species. Loblolly is much more sensitive to fire than slash pine. Slash pine also does worse in shade when young, and isn't as tolerant of soggy soil. Gainesville, Florida is full of big loblolly pines that would never have grown to maturity in the fire-driven ecosystem natural here. (There is some evidence of pre-Columbian natives torching forests in the Midwest to extend the range of bison, but down here there is usually a natural wildfire every 50 years or less in just about any spot, including swamps if there's a drought.) On my ex-farmland there are patches of solid sweetgum, with some laurel and live oaks at their fringes, but the usual pioneer tree is the loblolly pine. When lumber companies plant pines on cleared land (former farmland, freshly-logged land) around here, it's almost always the native slash pine, the naturally dominant tree except in swamps, where red maple and baldcypress or pondcypress tend to predominate. I'm not sure how usual the red maple would be without human interference, and I don't know where all these sweetgums came from either.
Way to go Gooley, you know your stuff! Slash pine is also commonly planted here instead of Loblolly, I have a slash pine forest next my house (which is invaded with privet by the way). I have just always been intrigued with the Longleaf ecosystem and how so many species of wildlife depended on fire for survival, not to mention how beautiful it is (or was).