Who Speaks for These Trees?

Longleaf Pine Forests in the Sewee-to-Santee Region

More than 140 plant species can be found in one square kilometer of longleaf pine forest.

A peeling wooden sign marks the spot along Highway 41 where in 1998 the Dr. Seuss Lorax Project and American Forests replanted a strand of longleaf pine in Francis Marion National Forest, nine years after Hurricane Hugo decimated the area.

While the Dr. Seuss Lorax Project wasn’t entrusted with the last of the longleaf seeds, as the child at the end Dr. Seuss’s Lorax is, the story of longleaf parallels the children’s storybook in many ways. Like the Truffula Trees in Seuss’ story, longleaf pine was once plentiful. It was the dominant forest of the coastal plain across nine states from Virginia to Texas, the only region on Earth where it exists. Longleaf covered more than 90 million acres, but after 300 years of intensive timber harvest, agricultural expansion, fire suppression, and urban development, less than three percent remains. And like Seuss’ story, saving the Truffula, or the longleaf, is also about saving the species that depend on them.

More than 140 plant species can be found in one square kilometer of longleaf pine forest, and with nearly 900 indigenous plant species, this forest is as biologically diverse as tropical rainforests. “It’s about more than the tree, more than the understory. It’s the entire ecosystem,” explains the Sewee-to-Santee’s own Lorax, Michael Prevost, former project director with The Nature Conservancy (TNC). By conservative estimate, this region once hosted more than 420,000 acres of longleaf. Currently, only about 50,000 acres remain.

According to Selden “Bud” Hill, director of McClellanville’s Village Museum and cultural historian of the Sewee-to-Santee region, “Nobody I know in recent history has done more for this area than Michael. He has preserved a massive number of acres.” As in, more than 25,000. The Santee Gun Club’s 1974 donation of 24,000 acres to TNC initiated the formal effort to conserve the region and its ecosystem. Prevost helped TNC complete 28 cooperative property acquisitions, resulting in the transfer of 7,000-plus acres to the United States Forest Service with another 2,000 acres planned for transfer in the next two years, after TNC completes initial longleaf restoration efforts. In addition, he helped TNC secure 31 conservation easements in the region, protecting more than 16,000 additional acres.

A Catalyst for Land Protection

In 2005, when a 100-acre parcel of longleaf pine forest across from the historic Brick Church at Wambaw came up for sale, TNC and its partners took fast action.

The circa 1768 chapel, worship place for some of the nation’s founding families, was once described by 20th century poet Archibald Rutledge as “a shrine in the wilderness, flanked on three sides by the immense loneliness of the pine forest.” To Hill, the potential sale of surrounding acreage meant jeopardizing the church’s historical and ecological context. “Part of protecting the church is making sure that property around it stays as is—as conserved land,” he says.

TNC moved into high gear, raising $150,000 from private donors towards the parcel’s purchase. Leveraging this with grants from the South Carolina Conservation Bank and the Charleston County Greenbelt Program, the private dollars helped TNC and its partners raise an additional $450,000 -- that’s three public dollars for every one private dollar. Furthermore, that 100 acres leveraged an additional 2,200 protected acres through two separate transactions. Thus, TNC’s original 100-acre purchase was the catalyst to protect 2,300 acres in the Sewee-to-Santee region, each providing enhanced opportunities for longleaf conservation.

What’s Next?

TNC is now heavily involved in the next phase of Sewee-to-Santee conservation: restoring the longleaf ecosystem. Much of the original range of longleaf is in good condition for restoration, however if the longleaf pine forest is to return, a dedicated land management effort—and constant coordination with partners such as the US Forest Service and the country’s preeminent longleaf pine authority, the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center—is necessary. On a forest tour, Prevost, who currently works with White Oak Forestry, points out longleaf seedlings planted in conjunction with the Forest Service and the Joseph Jones Center. To date, Prevost estimates, some 685 acres of seedlings have been planted, with another 300 acres identified for future planting.

Once longleaf seedlings have been established for two years, they are hardy. As Prevost explains, a 90% survival rate is both ideal and realistic. But longleaf—whether nascent as on this tract or mature as in other places in the region—requires more than land protection and replanting to flourish. In fact, TNC’s restoration efforts involve what many assume is only destructive: fire.
“Fire has been part of the longleaf pine cycle forever. With longleaf, fire is as important as rain and sunshine,” explains Tom Dooley, TNC’s State Fire Manager. Fire is essential every two to three years to reduce the fuel load on the forest floor, increase recruitment of longleaf seedlings, eliminate hardwood competition, and enable the establishment of saplings. “Longleaf’s high rosin content has made it fire-adapted. What’s more, its long, flammable needles might actually promote the regular fires it needs to spread out and be as dominant as it was centuries ago,” Dooley adds.

In addition to conducting the necessary prescribed burns on lands under TNC’s management, Dooley and TNC’s fire crew assist the US Forest Service by applying prescribed burns to about 30,000 acres of longleaf forests each year. In the coming years, TNC will collaborate even more closely with the Jones Center and with private landowners to expand the number of private lands treated with regular prescribed fire.

The historic “path” of this land—from swamp to rice plantation to shooting club to preserve—is indicative of “the evolution of a local conservation ethic,” according to Prevost, one that began because early European settlers and their descendants viewed large tracts as single entities that ought to stay together. Today protecting these large tracts through prescribed fire and collaboration with TNC’s public and private partners is the mutually reinforcing conservation strategy that will help restore longleaf pine forests and their biological diversity. Twenty years from now, Prevost foresees “a land base that protects rural values, forestry, small farms, and inherent biological diversity because its citizens are dedicated to its protection for the long term.” Like the Lorax, he hopes everyone will speak for the forest ecosystem.