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:
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- Are more adaptable to extreme changes in the climate, 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 longleaf restoration 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 with 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-resistant 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 the tree's original range remaining, conservationists say the destruction of the longleaf pine system is more widespread than the burning of the Amazon rain forest.
Many landowners in the Southeast grow 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 the Southeastern timber industry is returning to high-end wood products as the commodity pulp market shifts overseas, and this trend favors longleafs.