Before the Industrial Revolution, longleaf pine forests covered 92 million acres across the Southeast, including much of coastal South Carolina. Only 3 million acres of this vast, grassy domain still exist, with one of the last strongholds in the Francis Marion National Forest and protected lands around the Charleston metro area.

But a new study Thursday by the National Wildlife Federation said that as the world grows warmer, longleaf pines might be the trees of the future. The study found longleaf pine forests:

--Are more adaptable to extreme changes including wildfires, storms and insect infestations.

--Do a better job of sequestering carbon because they outlive many other trees, store large amounts of carbon underground in their root systems and produce high-quality wood for furniture and home building.

The report urges state and federal lawmakers to make restorationof longleafs a top environmental priority akin to the restoration of the Great Lakes and Florida's Everglades. It also calls for new incentive programs to encourage private property owners to grow and maintain longleaf pine forests.

"It's a tree of the past, and a tree of the future," said Joe Cockrell, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who works with landowners in South Carolina to preserve longleaf pine stands.

On a recent afternoon, Cockrell and Steve Moore of the S.C. Wildlife Federation stood amid a young stand of longleafs planted in McAlhany Nature Preserve near the Edisto River. "There are some old myths out there that it's not economical to grow longleafs, but aside from the economics, it's really our heritage," Cockrell said.

Longleaf pine forests evolved in an environment of frequent fires and storms. The trees have thick, fire-resistent bark and grow slowly during the early stages, giving them an edge in wildfires. Compared with other pine forests, which are dense and sometimes impenetrable, mature longleaf pine forests have an open feel with widely spaced trees and a grassy understory.

The longleaf pine was prized for its dense, hard wood, and many forests were cleared for farms and lumber. Tar and turpentine also can be made from the trees, and during the 1700s and 1800s, a massive industry grew up around longleaf pines to extract these important shipbuilding and maintenance materials. With only 3 percent of its original range remaining, conservationists say the destruction of the longleaf pine system is more widespread than the burning of the Amazon rainforest.

Many landowners in the Southeast plant loblolly and slash pines because they grow more quickly than longleafs. "The equation shifts in favor of longleaf when global warming is considered," the National Wildlife Federation study found.

"As the most climate-resilient pine species in the Southeast, longleaf pine may prove to be a better and less risky investment for private landowners," the report's authors said, citing this year's wildfires near Myrtle Beach. The study found longleaf pine forests near Myrtle Beach burned in a more orderly and controlled fashion than other forest types.

The Wildlife Federation report also said that the Southeastern timber industry is returning to high-end wood products as the commodity pulp market shifts overseas, and that this trend also favors longleafs.

Cockrell said that fields at McAlhany Nature Preserve are burned frequently to mimic what nature once did regularly.

Because of this, young, spindly green longleafs are shooting through the grass. He said the Fish and Wildlife Service has programs that pay landowners up to 50 percent of the costs of restoring a forest in exchange for a 10- to 15-year commitment to keep growing the longleafs. He said the program has restored 4,000 acres of longleaf forest in 70 projects.

Closer to Charleston, Cockrell and Moore stop by Brosnan Forest, one of the area's largest and best-preserved stands of longleaf. Norfolk Southern owns the land and recently protected it through a conservation easement. Unlike other pine forests, Brosnan's longleafs have an open, cathedral-like feel.

"Most people don't know what a longleaf pine forest is supposed to look like," Moore said. "This is a model for what we want to do."

Reach Tony Bartelme at 937-5554 or tbartelme@postandcourier.com.