By the numbers

The Sewee Longleaf Conservation Cooperative is assessing how many private and public longleaf acres are in the region around the Francis Marion National Forest.

669

New acres planted October 2011-March 2012 among cooperative members.

3,564

Acres burned in restoration efforts among members during that time.

Francis Marion longleaf

145,000 acres

Estimated longleaf stands before colonial settlement

50,000

Today

55,000 current goal.

Longleaf, Southeast

60-90 million acres

Pre-colonization

3.5 million Mid-1990s

4-4.5 million Today

Sewee Longleaf Conservation Cooperative, Francis Marion National Forest, Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center.

Longleaf pine savannas are like cathedrals — pillars of trees towering through shafts of sunlight to tufted needle crowns. Their grassy understory is rife with plants and creatures seen almost nowhere else.

They are just beautiful. They are maybe the most ecologically and economically valuable forest of the Lowcountry and the entire Southeast coast.

And they were all but gone. From an estimated 60 million to 90 million acres in Colonial times, the forests had been hacked down to little more than 3 million acres by the mid-1990s — harvested and replaced by other pines, plowed through for agriculture and then development. The remaining volunteer saplings were uprooted by feral pigs.

Now, the majestic forests seem to be on their way back. An ambitious regional effort led by forestry and conservation interests is planting tract after tract to restore the longleaf in as much 8 million acres from Virginia to Texas.

It would be a recovery as dramatic as the wild turkey, which was hunted in the region to the extent that by the mid-1900s its extinction was being predicted. Today, more than 100,000 of Ben Franklin’s “birds of courage” roam South Carolina.

Not so coincidentally, the turkey was restored from a few hundred birds trapped near Wambaw Creek, where they foraged back and forth between the bottomlands and the longleaf savannas.

The latest local sign of the tree’s recovery is the creation of the Sewee Longleaf Conservation Cooperative, a collaboration of those interests including private landowners looking to develop longleaf tracts.

For the long run

The two biggest obstacles to restoring the longleaf are time and fire.

The signature tree grows much slower than loblolly or other more commercially grown pines. The eventual payoff is bigger, but it takes longer for earnings to roll in. Loblolly and slash pine replaced longleaf en masse in the 20th century partly because owners relied on their timber more for income as the pulp paper industry emerged. That industry is shrinking in the region.

Owners are coming around again, said Kevin McIntyre, of Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center in Newton, Ga. “A lot more owners are looking at their forests for multiple values, wildlife, aesthetics, things like that,” he said.

The DuPres manage 450 acres for timber in Palmetto Plantation outside McClellanville. The family has turned to longleaf in the past few years.

“It’s a really beautiful and diverse ecosystem,” said John DuPre, a former forester in the Francis Marion. DuPre, 65, said he’s not likely to see much earnings return from the longleaf, but “somewhere down the line my children might.”

That’s reflected across the Southeast. The longleaf restoration initiative, in fact, has been led by private owners, said Rhett Johnson, the retired co-founder of the Longleaf Alliance and a private forest landowner in Andalusia, Ala. “Success breeds success. People see it and ask, can I do that on my land?”

Most owners want to be assured they will still make money on longleaf, he said. But the next thing they say is, “Well, I just want to leave my land like I remember. I want my children to see how it used to be.”

The need to burn

Then there’s the fire hazard, not because longleaf savannas burn, but because they have to, frequently. In most pine forests, the straw, fallen limbs and other debris create virtual pyres of highly flammable material. Fires clear that understory. Longleaf need that savanna to thrive. The reason the savannas took over so much of the coastal plain to begin with might well be that fire-hardy trees prospered in a region plagued by drought and lightning-strike wildfires. Native tribes learned to set fires to their advantage for game and crops.

Today, coastal forests have an “urban interface” that impinges more buffer land every year. Even large forest holdings stand alongside residential communities and roads. Smoke from vital prescribed, or managed, burns became a bane for many in the Lowcountry, where unexpected wind changes can cloud up a neighborhood or obscure a stretch of road. Burns began to be scheduled for calm days or when winds kept fumes away from causing problems. But each year, despite fewer acres burned, smoke seemed to set off more complaints.

Then came the wildfires. Amid a decade of prolonged, off-and-on-again drought, hundreds of thousands of acres burned or smoldered in 2011 across the four Southeastern coastal states. More than 3,500 acres went up in Charleston and Dorchester counties alone, and the fumes hazed and smelled up the Lowcountry air for months.

The worst of it was fires in the vast Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia that burned more than 300,000 acres and sent plumes of smoke up the coast on prevailing winds.

That woke people up, said Glen Stapleton, a former Francis Marion manager who labored against public opposition to hold prescribed burns in longleaf tracts and then to remove tons on tons of timber debris after Hurricane Hugo in 1989, a wildfire threat he called a potential catastrophe.

More people are coming to realize the importance of the tracts and habitat to the environment and the need to burn, he said. “There’s trade-offs. One way or the other the forests are going to burn. I’d rather put up that smoke in managed burns in controlled atmospheric conditions, than in out-of-control wildfires.”

The ethic

The Sewee cooperative has been formed among owners of properties that ring the Francis Marion, in an attempt to augment what the Longleaf Alliance in 2009 identified as one of 16 last remaining significant landscapes of the tree in the region. The idea is simply to work together to grow the forest and manage issues like prescribed burns.

“Your culture in South Carolina is a model for the rest of the Southeast,” McIntyre said. “The conservation ethic of the landowners is unparalleled.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter.