As he traveled across the Southeast in the late 18th century, naturalist William Bartram described with a sense of awe “a vast forest of the most stately pine trees that can be imagined.” He was writing about the longleaf pine forest that then blanketed much of the region.
That forest and the rich ecosystem engendered beneath its spreading canopy virtually disappeared during the generations that followed. At present, only 3 percent of the original acreage remains.
But thanks to woodland stewards in eastern portions of Charleston County and in Berkeley and Georgetown counties, we’re seeing an exceptional restoration of this living treasure in the Lowcountry. The commitment is already showing results.
As recently reported by The Post and Courier’s Bo Petersen, 50,000 acres of the fire-dependent longleaf pine ecosystem exist in this region of the Lowcountry — more than a third of the 145,000 acres when colonists settled here.
Recovering lost longleaf pine acreage has been a mission of The Nature Conservancy, which has been joined by forward-thinking landowners and natural resource agencies to make it happen. The restoration effort is possible because of the large-scale land protections achieved by TNC and its partners over the last 30 years. The Sewee region is the only South Carolina site identified in a nine-state restoration plan.
In late 2012, TNC organized the Sewee Longleaf Conservation Cooperative, consisting of public and private members interested in the longleaf pine’s revival. Property owners like White Oak Forestry, an affiliate of the Evening Post Publishing Co., and Palmetto and Fairfield plantations are doing it knowing that it will take longer to get financial returns for their slower-growing investment.
Eventually, however, the longleaf forest will be financially valuable for its durable timber. Already, the forest is extraordinarily valuable for the plant life and wildlife it supports. Longleaf pines provide a habitat for about 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.
And perhaps, the private commitment to longleaf restoration will inspire other landowners to follow suit. The South has a long way to go to recover from a century of overharvesting longleaf pines. In Colonial days, the longleaf pine was preeminent, particularly in the Carolinas and Georgia, though including areas as far west as Texas.
The vast canopy of the longleaf forest covered some 90 million acres. In the mid 1990s, that singular ecosystem had declined to 3 million acres.
One of the Sewee Longleaf Conservation Cooperative’s public partners, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, recently awarded TNC a $215,000 grant to expand private longleaf restoration by 1,000 acres and continue restoration on 3,000 acres surrounding the Francis Marion National Forest. The project will include prescribed burning to increase the number of longleaf pines, planting seedlings, restoring native understory species and controlling invasive species.
The South Carolina Lowcountry is as beautiful and healthy as it is today because wise people over the years dedicated their time and resources to care for their environment.
The Sewee Longleaf Conservation Cooperative is showing how a threatened Lowcountry ecosystem can be restored for the benefit of generations to come.
It will serve as an example for landowners in other regions to do the same.