HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) – Trapper Fowler stands among a stretch of towering pines dotting Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve. The trees speckle the landscape, filtering sunlight to hit the forest floor through their long, needle leaves.

“This is what you would have seen in the entire southeast,” Fowler, the north coast project manager for the Coastal Conservation League said. “This is what it’s supposed to look like.”

With needle-heavy tops and cones the size of hands, longleaf pines once dominated the landscape, until European settlement and a switch to faster-growing pines decimated the native tree’s population.

But while longleaf pines are slow to grow, experts say the keystone species is crucial to maintaining ecosystems during droughts, and reduces the chance of catastrophic wildfires.

Exploiting its strengths

Ninety million acres of longleaf pines stretched from southern Virginia to eastern Texas prior to colonization in the South, making it the dominant species of pine in the region. 

But the trees’ strengths rapidly led to its downfall as European settlers realized the extremely sappy pines were great for resin and pitch and that the tall, strong, straight trees were an excellent source of lumber.

“The trees provided vast resources for the naval store industry,” said Sarah Crate, the outreach communications coordinator for the Longleaf Alliance, a national nonprofit formed in 1995. 

Tapping the trees, however, can stress the pines and eventually kill them. 

Trapper Fowler, north coast manager with the Coastal Conservation League, explains how needles are brushed away from longleaf pines before prescribed burns.

Today, it’s estimated that only 3% of the trees’ population remains. 

Landowners will bypass longleaf pines in favor of pines that grow much faster, like the loblolly. Other pines also have advantages over longleaf pines. Longleaf seeds are large and heavy, meaning they don’t travel as far. Feral hogs and overgrazing can also prevent the seeds from taking root.

In addition, development has taken up available forest space. 

Once they grow, the benefits longleaf pines bring to an area are numerous. The biodiversity around the trees on a per unit basis is just as diverse as a rainforest, according to Fowler. 

The endangered trees also provide the habitat for other endangered species, like the red-cockaded woodpecker.

But planting new trees now won’t immediately back that bird population. The bird is the only woodpecker that excavates living trees, but it requires the tree’s rough bark to be softened by a fungus called red heart disease. Because of that factor, the trees have to be more than 80 years old before a red-cockaded woodpecker will choose to create those holes.  

A single excavated cavity is home to 150 other species, according to Fowler.

Venus flytraps – only native to the Carolinas, with its only existing South Carolina location in Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve – also thrive in that ecosystem. 

Restoration efforts now are crucial, Crate said.

“That means planting a tree now is looking into the future for the benefits that tree will provide in the future,” she said.

Bringing back fire

Although it might seem counterintuitive, the greatest resource the pines need to grow is fire.

“Longleaf is a tree that thrives with fire, but, also, it’s not just the tree that thrives with fire, but the ecosystems that the tree occurs in,” Crate said. 

That natural clearing of underbrush also allows other native plants to grow. 

A move away from promoting routine burns to suppressing wildfires when they appear has put that at risk. 

“The South is fortunate in that the history of fire has remained to some degree, and to be able to bring attention to prescribed fire on a national level, with the wildfire tragedies in the West, but then also in the South,” Crate said.

Those catastrophic events, like the Paradise, California fire that destroyed more than 18,000 structures, caused $16.5 billion in damage and killed more than 80 people, have brought renewed attention on the importance of controlled burns.

Forests would naturally burn every few years due to lightning strikes or through controlled fires started by Native Americans. That’s changed due to a contemporary shift to fire suppression, instead of fire prevention. 

In a longleaf pine habitat, natural fires will burn low and slow, preventing more destructive blazes that can impact urban areas. 

Development has become a barrier as out-of-state residents move to the state and are less likely to support prescribed burns. 

“We are having to do a lot of education efforts for the new people,” said Alicia Farrell, the region 4 coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. “Thankfully, the people who have been here a long time know the history, they know the land, and they can help us educate their neighbors about, ‘No, you don’t need to freak out just because there’s smoke in the area. This is really important.’”

The officials are seeing that support shift back towards a positive direction.

“The changes we are seeing in fire support is simply because there is a lot of new people here,” Farrell said. “Once they hear the facts, or see it on the ground or understand what is going on, it is really easy to get buy-in from the public a lot of the time. But we do have to do a lot of legwork for education.”

Development has complicated how those burns can be done. Farrell said the DNR has to be very careful about what conditions it burns in. Fire lines will be prepared in the winter and fall to make sure that fire doesn’t jump and spread to areas it isn’t intended to. Equipment and crews are also on site to quickly extinguish any fires that get out of control. Depending on where the fire will be, public notice will be put out to explain why there will be smoke in the area. 

“We take a lot of precautions,” Farrell said. “I mean, fire is a risky business. Everyone should know that, and because we know that, it makes it a lot safer.”

Trapper Fowler, north coast manager for the Coastal Conservation League, shows off longleaf pine cones at Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve.

Crews will scrape pine straw away from longleaf pines to further protect them, even though 99% of the trees would survive. 

The DNR will wait for the perfect days to burn.

“The right conditions for burning are safe conditions for everybody, but it’s also the conditions that are going to help the plants the most,” Farrell said. “So those two are never in conflict, thankfully, so we don’t have to take that risk.”

Slow gains

Crate said the best estimate is that 4.7 million acres of longleaf pines exist today, up from 3 million in previous years. 

Nationwide, groups and government organizations hope to boost that number to 8 million by 2025.

“We probably aren’t going to reach that goal, but we have done a lot to move in that direction,” said Russell Hubright, the forest management chief for the South Carolina Forestry Commission.

About 88% of forestland in South Carolina is privately owned, making partnerships between government entities and landowners crucial to the trees’ future.

Hubright said the forestry commission promotes sustainable forestry, conducts workshops with the Longleaf Pine Alliance, and that landowners are essentially guaranteed to secure funding to help with 75% to 80% of the costs of planting longleaf pines if they choose it over other types of pines. 

“They can be more challenging, but our friends who know a lot more about longleaf help to get them established,” Hubright said. 

Things can be complicated when it comes to private land. Plants have fewer protections than animals under the Endangered Species Act, making it so landowners can destroy the plants without the same citations they’d face if it was an animal. 

Young longleaf pines are pictured at Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve.

The Coastal Conservation League works with elected officials and the general public, does outreach to explain the importance of the  species’ ecosystems and explains the tools the DNR uses to maintain the areas. 

While planting the trees doesn’t always have a high monetary benefit, Fowler said there still is a value attached to the trees.

“It’s complex, because landowners know that if they are just looking at the money side of things, that this might not be what they want to plant,” he said. “But the good thing about it is a lot of these landowners are starting to understand and evolve with their management plans to add value to things such as long-fame species, diversity of the forest floor. So things like that, and with longleaf pine, you get both.”

Crate refers to it as “a tree of choice for the future.” In addition to helping manage fire, longleaf pines are less susceptible to certain insects and diseases compared to other pines, can withstand wind events and are resistant to drought. 

When replacing trees, the DNR favors longleaf pines over other species.

“We want to encourage the plant communities that would have naturally or natively been here, and here in the Lowcountry and up the coast of South Carolina, that would have been longleaf pines,” Farrell said.