Finding Working Solutions for Conservation in South Carolina’s Lowcountry


By Jeff Dennis

Outdoor Correspondent


            For conservation to work in these tough economic times, it has to be good for the pocketbook as well as for the forest ecosystem. That’s part of the message that the American Forest Foundation is bringing to the family landowners who control nine million acres of forestland in South Carolina. The bottom line is that growing the stately longleaf pine can often generate more revenue than loblolly. Longleaf pine also preserves a unique Coastal Plain ecosystem, replete with rare birds, salamanders and other wildlife.

            But transforming loblolly or slash pine stands into longleaf pine requires smart stewardship. Planting, thinning, and prescribed fire are among the management tools that can help restore longleaf and create the open, sylvan park-like setting that pioneers encountered when longleaf pine once covered nearly 90 million acres throughout the South. Many landowners aren’t familiar with this approach, so the American Forest Foundation, in partnership with Clemson University Extension offices and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and with funding from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, has been sponsoring a series of workshops, demonstrations, and publications. “We are finding landowners very receptive,” said Laura Dunleavy, manager of the project for the American Forest Foundation, “once they see how it works on the ground.”

The Coastal Plain evolved with fire as a natural component, and many species in this geographic area came to depend on a well-spaced forest with an open under story. Many of these such as the gopher tortoise that depends on the non-woody plants found in the under story, are now rare or declining due to modern tree farming practices.

The first settlers recorded that they directed horse-drawn wagons through a prairie of pine trees, where widely spaced pine trees allowed for a stunning vista. In modern times, if a landowner spaces his pines widely, then a hardwood component fills in the open space creating a mid-story that would impede such a view. A combination of herbicides and controlled fire is the prescription for holding back this mid-story, addressing the stem above ground as well as the roots below ground. This type of management requires a commitment of time and resources from the landowner, and signals a new balanced approach for timber revenue, wildlife benefits and the aesthetics that accompany a park-like setting.

            Working closely with Clemson University Extension, Dunleavy has come to South Carolina half a dozen times to conduct landowner field days where property owners are educated about what forestry practices make sense for wildlife and the bottom line. These events held in Aiken, Colleton, Georgetown, Hampton and Williamsburg Counties sought to broaden the message along the Coastal Plain, while showing that habitat differs greatly from location to location. You might have a roaming gopher-tortoise in sandy soil and longleaf pines in one spot, and spotted turtles chasing ephemeral ponds in hardwood bottomlands elsewhere.

            Landowners attending the field days report that they gained both ecological and economic information that motivates them to practice conservation forestry. Forest fragmentation is prevalent throughout the entire Southeast, but the Coastal Plain is under extraordinary pressure due to development. Landowners utilizing beneficial conservation forestry practices are eligible for a metal sign to post on their property to raise awareness about this growing movement to respectfully preserve what nature has seen fit to grant to the coastal plain of South Carolina. To date, 185 landowners who implemented management practices on a total of 103,505 acres have received signs.

            South Carolina’s ample pine forests and isolated wetlands are home to rare plants, colorful birds, and reptiles. Trends in the realm of forestry like intensive pine plantation management, which is connected to increasing population and product demand, have greatly reduced the number of acres that are hospitable to grassland songbirds like the Henslow’s sparrow. It is ironic that “recreation properties” are now being squeezed for every dollar that can be harvested from maximum timber production, leaving a game bird species like the bob white quail to nearly be wiped clean from the landscape.

            True to its reputation for developing conservation solutions on working lands, the American Forest Foundation has raised awareness and pledged dollars toward conservation forestry. A 100-page handbook, entitled A Forest Ecosystem Conservation Handbook for Conservation-Reliant Species in South Carolina, was produced and target mailed to 2,000 landowners. The handbook, which includes contributions from natural resource experts from Clemson University Extension and the SCDNR, outlines the “hows” and “whys” of conservation forestry practices. It also provides links to technical and financial resources. The American Forest Foundation also directed cost-share funds to eligible private landowners for the planting of longleaf pine trees and for herbicide treatment of undesirable hardwood species such as sweet gum in thinned pine stands.

            The education of landowners about practices that behoove both wildlife and timber production has had an untold effect. With 325 landowners attending the five field days, surveys conclude that they have conducted networking among peers reaching as many as 7,000 landowners. The conservation handbook was mailed to landowners holding nearly 900,000 acres total. This landscape-sized management for rare and declining species is the message that needs to be conveyed – that it’s up to everyone to participate in order to make a difference.

            Sound conservation forestry practices include converting loblolly pine stands to longleaf pine via under story planting and the thinning of pine stands to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor and promote the growth of native grasses. Once planted pines are established, it’s up to the landowner to utilize prescribed fire to manage the ecosystem, and while winter or dormant season fire is the most common, new theories are promoting growing-season prescribed fire.

            Some species have already been lost forever such as the Carolina parakeet, and others teeter between extinction and myth such as the Lord-God-bird, or Ivory-billed woodpecker, which when viewed caused witnesses to invoke the supreme creator with the phrase, “Lord God, what a bird!”  We can preserve the habitat for the Ivory-billed but will he ever return to claim it? It’s not too late for another woodpecker though, even though it is likely the smallest in size, the red-cockaded woodpecker demands mature longleaf pine trees for nest excavation. With this type of habitat in short supply, forward-thinking landowners can restore longleaf pines and their associated ecosystem back to the landscape.

            Painted buntings, diamondback rattlesnakes, fox squirrels, flatwoods salamanders and a host of warblers are dependent on actively managed forest habitat in the South Carolina Coastal Plain. Each individual species has a niche in the ecosystem and when a piece of the puzzle is lost forever, then the puzzle can never be whole again.

Rather than lament the loss, the American Forest Foundation is one of the national conservation groups that is showing innovative leadership by offering positive solutions to on-the-ground conservation challenges. They know that good conservation depends on good landowner relations and that success can depend heavily on making economics work too. More information can be obtained on the Internet at the American Forest Foundation’s website, under the Center for Conservation Solutions.

The American Forest Foundation is a nonprofit conservation organization with 70 years of experience in training environmental educators and helping private landowners manage their forests for multiple benefits – wildlife, clean water, recreation and sustainable wood production. Their 50-state network of conservation volunteers is leading initiatives to protect wildlife habitat, save family-owned forestland and engage kids in local conservation.


Jeff Dennis is a Charleston native and a Lowcountry outdoorsman. He can be reached at