The Windy Fire burned thousands of acres in the Santee River region near McClellanville in 2011. Out of that wildfire came a survivor and a seed: the longleaf pine.

Value of the longleaf pine

Both needles and wood are sought-after products.

The grassy understory of the pine savannahs is habitat for 30 threatened or endangered plant and animal species, 60 percent of the reptile and amphibian species in South Carolina and more than 68 bird species.

Longleaf is more adapted than other pines to the hurricane winds, wildfires, drenching rains and droughts of the coast; it resists insects and disease better.

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Nearly $200,000 in grants have just been awarded to plant 600 more acres of the native pine and restore at least 5,000 more acres in the Sewee region around the Francis Marion National Forest. That acreage would augment more than 10,000 state-owned and privately owned acres already growing in longleaf pine.

Why is that important? Longleaf pine forests are maybe the most ecologically and economically valuable forest in the Lowcountry and the entire Southeast.

“They are one of the most diverse ecosystems in the hemisphere,” said David O’Neill, National Fish and Wildlife Federation conservation program vice president.

The forests made the place. By Colonial times, they covered some 60 million to 90 million acres of the coastal plain. But the acreage was hacked to little more than 3 million by the 1990s.

Now private-public groups across the region are trying to bring them back. More than 4 million acres exist today; the goal is 8 million by 2025.

The grants announced Thursday have been awarded to the S.C. Wildlife Federation to manage the effort for the Sewee Longleaf Cooperative Restoration and Outreach, one of those groups. It’s made up of private owners along with conservation groups like the federation, as well as state and federal agencies.

The grants come from contributions by International Paper through the National Fish and Wildlife Federation and from federal agencies.

One of the cooperative’s private owners is White Oak Forestry, an affiliate of Evening Post Industries, the owner of The Post and Courier.

Grants also were awarded in North Carolina. But the effort here is significant enough that the grant announcement was made at the Sewee Visitor Center in Awendaw. Here the effort has keyed on private lands around the longleaf “stronghold” Francis Marion forest, where more than 40,000 longleaf acres are growing. The private owner-led Sewee group is a model for similar groups across the region.

All that leads back to the Windy Fire, fueled by 30 mph winds. The cooperative “was a direct result of that,” said Hall McGee, White Oak Forestry vice president and general manager.

The fire spurred commercial owners to look harder at the cost/benefit of planting longleaf compared to more widely grown — and fire vulnerable — commercial pines.

White Oak lost more than 700 pine acres during the fire. The blaze virtually was unstoppable once it got into the peat moss-rich grounds, because it burned underground there and would pop up anywhere.

But when the fire crossed a road to a stretch of the company’s longleaf planting called Peachtree, it quit. Longleaf is fire resistant and those acres recently had undergone prescribed, or controlled, burns. There was nothing left to catch.

In most pine forests, the straw, fallen limbs and other debris create virtual pyres of highly flammable material.

That had been more thoroughly burned clear on the Peachtree property because longleaf need a clear understory to thrive.

“That’s the whole idea, to get rid of the fuel,” McGee said.

The cleared understory creates the irreplaceable ecosystem.

“Fire is to the longleaf forest what rain is to the rain forest,” said Steve Moore, of the S.C. Wildlife Federation, quoting an adage.

It’s no small thing that one of Moore’s intentions with the grant money is workshops and other education efforts about the critical need for prescribed burns in the coastal plain — for people’s wildfire safety as well as forestland health.

As the region develops, more people are moving closer to forest lands. Smoke complaints have become more frequent and forest owners have become more reluctant to burn. S.C. Forestry Commission officials estimate that only half the acres are burned each year that are necessary to keep out-of-control wildfires from raging.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.