HARRISON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - Several hundred years ago, longleaf pine trees covered 97 million acres across the South. Today, that number has dwindled to just four million acres. But there's an ongoing public-private partnership, that's working to restore that important eco-system.
New growth of longleaf pine trees covers a large stretch of land near Tradition. Re-planting such forest land is necessary to replace so much that's been lost over the years.
"As our population expands, they need places to live and to build the next WalMart or strip mall, we lose ecosystem to development," said Jimmy Mordica, with the U.S. Forest Service, "We did restoration, longleaf restoration on this site back in 2011. So you can see the growth of the young longleaf coming up behind us."
The longleaf eco system is home to several endangered or threatened species. A gopher tortoise is being introduced to its new home.
"Was picked up several weeks ago, out on 49 near here. He's got just a little bitty crack there, on his back end. But he's been thoroughly checked out by a vet and they think he's ready to be released," said biologist, Kathy Shelton with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
"Have a starter burrow. Which is not a natural burrow, but the tortoise will develop it, hopefully develop it into a natural burrow," said Patrick Chubb, an environmental expert with Mississippi Power Company.
Reluctant at first, the tortoise eventually explores its new home.
Partners and stake holders in the ongoing longleaf restoration are on a field trip to check out progress with the project.
"Endangered species in this general area, that Desoto does such a grand job protecting and enhancing their habitat, we want to just contribute and continue," said Judy Steckler, who directs the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain.
Dusky gopher frogs are another endangered species that prefer longleaf pine habitat. Pony Ranch Pond is a major success story.
"It took us years to get the pond right and we weren't sure if the pond was right, and we did all the eco system restoration work around it, and the frogs actually traveled a mile and crossed a creek and made it up to the uplands. And they established their own population there," said Ed Moody, with the U.S. Forest Service.
The Nature Conservancy is the latest group to receive a grant to help restore the longleaf pines. Prescribed burning and new planting will help provide the kind of habitat that ensures a bright future for animals like the gopher tortoise.
Over the past decade, the Southern Company has partnered with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to contribute nearly $9 million in grant money to support the "longleaf stewardship fund".