John Spearman's father-in-law told him he was crazy for planting longleaf pine trees on his property. The year was 1986, and loblolly, another pine species, was in vogue in the forest industry.

He was vindicated, however, when Hurricane Hugo arrived in 1989 and knocked down his father-in-law's loblollies -- and spared the longleaf pines.

Spearman, a private landowner, was one of seven panelists who spoke to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Monday at Charles Towne Landing about protecting longleaf forests.

Longleaf pines, hardy conifers that are well-adapted to thrive after forest fires, are estimated to have covered 90 million acres from Virginia to Texas. According to the advocacy group

Longleaf Alliance, the tree's range has shrunk to about 3.4 million acres.

"The longleaf survived storms for over a thousand years," Spearman said. "It just didn't survive man harvesting it."

Longleaf thrives naturally in the sandy soil of South Carolina's Lowcountry and Midlands, forming non-dense forests with fallen needles and grass-like shoots of young trees carpeting the ground. While loblolly matures more quickly and is commonly grown for paper pulp, longleaf grows straight enough to be used as a telephone pole.

Several threatened and endangered species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, depend on the longleaf to survive.

The event Monday was one of a series of public-input stops President Barack Obama ordered Vilsack to make under his conservation-minded America's Great Outdoors Initiative. It featured the signing of a "memorandum of understanding," like a joint mission statement, about preserving the longleaf by representatives from the Departments of Agriculture, Interior and Defense.

Much of the input was about working with small-time private owners of forest land. In the audience, Jason Ayers, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, talked about assistance programs that help plant new longleaf pines on farmers' land under the condition that they then maintain the trees for at least 15 years.

Panel member Victor Harris, editor of Minority Landowner Magazine, said some property owners would be wary of federal employees taking an interest in their land.

"For a lot of landowners, when they look out their, window, they don't see a loblolly pine. They see a pine tree," Harris said. "We can't assume everyone will be onboard."