Given the discussion about the possible Maine National Park, I thought this- sent by Terry Seyden- might be relevant.
Francis Marion forest marks 75 years
By BO PETERSEN – email@example.com
WAMBAW — The wild calls. Under dangling live oak limbs, 19-year-old Thomas Grimsley yanks on a riding outfit that looks like it’s been paintballed, and he straps on a helmet. He pulls the motorbike down from the pickup bed, an ’07 Yamaha YZ250, a powerful, competition-grade motocross burner, and cranks up the two-stroke motor.
“Fast. Scary fast,” Grimsley says. The Charleston retail worker and Grand National Cross Country rider is ready to rumble — off on a remote cycle trail through the Francis Marion National Forest.
Yep, those “empty” miles of pines in Berkeley and Charleston counties aren’t quite naturalist John Muir’s backcountry anymore. The Francis Marion celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, and a few hundred thousand people will hike, bike, hunt, fish, paddle, camp, horseback ride, birdwatch, even target shoot in it. That’s more people than lived in the three counties around Charleston when the forest opened in 1936.
The swampy environs once described as “unwanted land” have become a destination and its popularity has brought new troubles.
More people wanting to do more things have to be accommodated while $6 million per year of timber is harvested, acres of native longleaf pines planted, and thousands of species of plants and animals managed from hooded pitcher plants to black bear. The forest spreads across a quarter million acres and operates on tight budget with a cut-back staff of 42, who face a wide range of emerging issues.
“Twenty years ago we weren’t dealing with meth labs,” said regional U.S. Forest Service supervisor Paul Bradley.
But the Francis Marion remains “a tremendous public natural resource, and one of the cornerstones of conservation on the East Coast,” in the words of Michael Prevost, White Oak Forestry Corp. president, who formerly worked with the Nature Conservancy conserving tracts in the forest.
Maybe the best way to describe the public value of this place is to talk turkey, wild turkey, and longleaf pine. A generation ago, wild turkey were rarely seen, hunted almost to extinction in South Carolina. Today, more than 100,000 of them are out there, in all 46 counties. They have reclaimed their status as a sought-after game bird.
Every one of those wild turkeys came from a few hundred trapped in the forest a half-century ago for a captive breeding program run by the foresters and S.C. Natural Resources. The birds were what was left of the native Francis Marion flocks, a strain considered to be one of the purest strains of wild turkey anywhere in the world.
Thousands of animal species live in the Francis Marion along with more than 1,600 plant species, in some 30 distinct natural environs. That makes the place one of the most ecologically diverse forests in the Southeast. Its heart is the longleaf pine savannah — home to 300 varieties of native plants, birds including the wild turkey, 170 species of reptiles or amphibians, and 36 mammals.
At one time, 90 million acres of the cathedral-like savannahs of tall, straight trunks and tufted needle crowns spread across the Southeast.
Timbering and other farming chopped it up. Timber companies replaced it quicker-growing loblolly pine.
Today only four million acres of longleaf stand. About 40,000 of those acres are in the Francis Marion. In contrast, the forest has 120,000 acres of mostly loblolly pine. The forest service, working with other groups, is replacing the loblolly tracts one-by-one with longleaf, in an effort to completely restore its savannahs.
Longleaf is more valuable timber and the slender needles a sought-after ground cover. It stands up better to hurricanes. It’s fire-resistant. In fact, it’s the mainstay of the savannah “fire ecosystem,” habitat that depends on periodic burning to nurture all those species.
“Fire ecosystem is one of the most diverse plant communities we have in North America,” said Bill Twomey, forest service silvaculturist.
That pine ecosystem, though, and its “urban interface,” might be the biggest problem the forest faces today. With more people living nearby and commuting through the Francis Marion, foresters have to wait for just the right winds and weather to do controlled burns. Twomey estimates the forest service only burns half the acres it needs to each year.
Meanwhile, partly because of the backlog of unburned undergrowth, wildfires crop up frequently, often because of human carelessness. People bring invasive species, littering, illegal dumping and poaching everything from deer to bamboo.
“Any time you have more people in a constrained area you have more conflict,” Bradley, the forest supervisor, said.
Policing creates its own problems. In 2010, a father camping with his daughter was outraged to find a hidden surveillance camera at the campsite.
Earlier this year, two Boy Scout leaders were ticketed $225 each for “illegal parking” after putting trucks in the wrong place when they arrived at a camp at night. The fines were thrown out in court.
Francis Marion workers still pick up phone calls from people asking when the national park opens for the day. The distinction often gets lost. A park is more of a preserve with set hours and controlled access. This is a working forest, balancing preservation with recreation and industry, like timbering, that helps pay its way.
Jannah DuPre, Sewee Visitors Center co-director, puts it succinctly: In a national park you camp in a designated campground; in a national forest, you can camp almost anywhere with a permit.
The Francis Marion has a slew of historic sites — its namesake’s grave and the Revolutionary War-era Battery One along the Santee River, for examples.
It has wilderness areas like Wambaw Swamp, even a Cape Romain boat landing.
But there’s no one focal point. It remains the place for the Lowcountry to roam.
“The beauty here is a more subtle, discovery experience,” DuPre said.
(Note: links to this and other recent news stories about the US Forest Service can be found at http://www.seyden.net. )