Trees, both old and new, in South Carolina

Some of the few old-growth trees left standing, in Congaree National Park.

Some of the few old-growth trees left standing, in Congaree National Park.

Heard a pretty cool story out of South Carolina on NPR this morning:

Like much of the United States, South Carolina was once covered in old-growth forests. By the mid-20th century, virtually all of the virgin wood in the state was gone, either hauled away on trains or floated down rivers to be cut into lumber at saw mills.

But not all that timber made it to its destination. Some sank on its way down the river, where those old-growth logs have been preserved for about a century. Now, these precious leftovers can be worth up to several thousand dollars each.

But getting that treasure out is no easy task. First, anyone hoping to dredge the logs, known as sinker wood, must obtain a permit from the state. The logs weigh tons and are buried deep down in the muck. Once removed, the wood must be properly stored before milling to avoid cracking. And then, there are the alligators…

I learned several things from that piece, the most surprising of which was that wood that had been underwater for generations, even centuries, could still be useful, even valuable. I would have thought it would be ruined….

Anyway, I listened with particular interest because of an interesting project I’ve been working on. ADCO is doing some work for Hobcaw Barony. If you don’t know what or where that is, it would take a lot of words to tell you. But basically: It’s a 16,000 acre tract of land, essentially the southern end of Waccamaw Neck, just above Georgetown. It was originally a land grant to one of the Lords Proprietors, had been broken up into multiple rice plantations, and had been mostly reassembled around the time of the Recent Unpleasantness. After the end of slavery made it tough for SC planters to compete with cheaper rice from out west, the owners started using the mostly wild land for hunting clubs for rich Yankees. Bernard Baruch, the Camden native who had made an immense fortune on Wall Street and would become a close adviser to seven presidents (he’s the guy who put the term “Cold War” into circulation, in a speech to the SC Legislature), bought the tract and some additional land to more or less assemble the original royal grant. He used it as a winter home and hunting preserve.

His daughter, Belle, bought it from him in chunks, starting in the mid-30s. When she died in 1964, she left it to a foundation that was to preserve the land in its natural state in perpetuity, and open it to the state’s colleges and universities for educational and research purposes. Both USC and Clemson have operated institutes on the land since the late 60s — USC studying the estuary, Clemson the forest.

Anyway, one of the projects is to re-establish long-leaf pine, which was mostly cut down for naval stores in the age of sail. One challenge in doing this is the wild hogs on the land — descendants of swine left there by some early European settlers — which love tender young long-leaf pine roots.

OK, so it’s a thin connection, but since that’s what’s on my mind these days, that’s what caused me to be particularly interested in this NPR story…

The King's Highway running through Hobcaw, looking much as it did in colonial times.

The King’s Highway running through Hobcaw, looking much as it did in colonial times.

47 thoughts on “Trees, both old and new, in South Carolina

  1. Kevin Dietrich

    I believe the wood remains a viable resource because it’s old-growth timber, which is denser than trees that are grown and harvested in a much shorter time span. The dense grain keeps water from penetrating throughout the wood, preventing it from deteriorating. It’s also what makes it so heavy that it sinks in the first place. These can be found in rivers and lakes throughout the Southeast, and other parts of the nation, as well.

  2. bud

    Trees in the interstate median need to go. They’re a significant safety hazard to the motoring public. So the first order of business for Congressman Sanford was to block the cutting of those trees. Is there anything sensible that can be accomplished without a fight?

    1. Mark Stewart

      I like trees in the median, Bud. If someone falls asleep and runs off the road, that stuff happens and is another reminder why driving is a privilege and a responsibility. The middle barrier, of whatever material and design, though is important. I never understood why the DOT let so many people be killed by cars and trucks crossing over the median grass into oncoming traffic.

      Maybe DOT could just put a cable barrier along the inside of both lanes and leave the trees be. Otherwise, are you suggesting cutting down all the trees along the outside down, too – and how far from the roadway then?

    2. William Butler

      Yes if the trees are not being given to special interest parties at below true value. Has anyone shown how much revenue this has brought to SC. By what method and whom were the bids reviewed and the contracts awarded.

      In a similar area of SC Interstate 26 there are questions? Are the real estate developers “kicking in” on the cost of the special I-26 exits under construction just above Summerville, or are we SC taxpayers paying the tab?

  3. bud

    This is the low hanging fruit of the highway safety world. Tree collisions claim dozens, if not hundreds, of lives in SC and thousands nationally. The DOT owns the ROW for trees in the median. It’s cheap to cut them down and a sensible beautification project could enhance the esthetics of our roads. Put in the cable barriers to prevent crossovers. Voila, you’ve spent pennies to prevent many needless deaths and horrible injuries. Why is this so controversial? Protecting trees that are dangerous to motorists is one liberal policy that I oppose.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      The lives lost are those of negligent drivers and, to a much lesser extent, their passengers.

    2. kc

      “Tree collisions claim dozens, if not hundreds, of lives in SC and thousands nationally. ”

      Are you kidding me? It sounds like you’re channeling Ronald Reagan. Next you’ll be telling us how much pollution trees cause.

      Death to trees!

  4. Norm Ivey

    Thanks for posting the picture of Congaree, one of my favorite places in the state. We were hiking there a couple days ago and saw an 8-foot gator in Weston Lake. It’s a beautiful, primeval place with the kinds of trees that humble you. If you haven’t been, you should go. And if you have been, you should go again.

    I like trees in the median, also. They’re only a safety hazard to people who fall asleep, drink, text or otherwise shirk their responsibilities while driving. If I remember correctly, back in the 1980s either SCDOT or USDOT ordered that pine groves in the interstate medians be cut down in a number of places. One spot was the stretch of I26 between I77 and Exit 119–just beyond that area where you can see the Farmer’s Market from the interstate. A few years later a bunch of trees were planted in the same area. They’ve since matured, and make that part of the interstate attractive. I try to avoid interstates now. They’ve become so congested they’re no longer worth driving IMO. (Although on a recent trip to Daytona, I found the three lanes of I95 through Georgia and Florida a pleasure to drive.) The back roads of South Carolina are beautiful and interesting in ways no interstate can ever be. And now that I know of Hobcaw Barony, I believe I’ll plan a trip to see it.

    Good post, Brad.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Is the boardwalk flooded,Norm? The river is sure high in town, more like April than August!

      1. Norm Ivey

        It is. The ranger told us that day (Sunday)was the first day the low boardwalk had been passable in some time. We tried to hike the Oakridge trail, but the mosquitoes and the muck made it less than pleasant, so we just did the boardwalk.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          Thanks! We may be taking some Japanese teenagers through there on Friday, weather permitting. Bug spray, of course…

  5. Scout

    “I learned several things from that piece, the most surprising of which was that wood that had been underwater for generations, even centuries, could still be useful, even valuable. I would have thought it would be ruined….”

    The most surprising thing I learned was….trees sink? Thanks Kevin, for the explanation.

    Also I’ve been to Baruch to study the estuary. I spent a year as a Marine Science Major. It’s a cool place and they have Red Cockaded Woodpeckers down there.

    1. Norm Ivey

      We saw a Red Cockaded Woodpecker at Cheraw earlier this year. And a nice pileated woodpecker (and other birds) at Biedler last week. My bird-watching high point was a California Condor at the Grand Canyon in June.

      I was reading a little about sinker wood online. It sounds as if sinker wood is what eventually becomes petrified wood in time.

    2. Silence

      Does wood sink in water?
      No, no, it floats!… It floats! Throw her into the pond!
      No, no. What else floats in water?

  6. bud

    Apparently the consensus among Brad’s posters is an appropriate punishment for a careless driver is the death of him and his passengers. Ask someone who lost a loved one to a tree that could have easily been removed and I think your perspective would change.

    1. Silence

      Let’s remove all the curves from the road, while we are at it, bud. I for one prefer the trees. You want to reduce traffic deaths? Don’t issue so many driver’s licenses.

      1. Mark Stewart

        Actually, highway engineers try to introduce curves into highways just to keep people awake and alert – nothing too drastic, but enough to keep people focused.

        There are a lot of traffic design issues that should be resolved to a safer standard; many, many ones have already been addressed over time. Trees more than 20 feet from the interstate pavement should not be among those. On the other hand, drainage ditches within 2 feet of the edge of collector and arterial roadways should absolutely be addressed. It seems to me the edges of the secondary roads result in more deaths, on a per mile driven basis.

        The biggest killer is the left turn. Should we ban those, bud?

  7. Kathryn Fenner

    I think that scapegoating trees for the death of someone is just that. How about that person’s negligence?

    1. bud

      I’m good with that. Why a 15 year old is allowed to operate a motor vehicle is beyond me. Perhaps with the new smart cars that drive themselves this won’t be an issue in a few decades.

  8. Burl Burlingame

    Some nice thick bushes are good at slowing cars.

    On the other hand, keeping highways safe is pure socialism.

  9. Silence Appleseed

    @ bud Bunyan (that is your last name isn’t it?)
    Regarding your struggle: The US interstate highway system is 47,182 miles long. Halve that to get the length of medians, roughly. If we figure that there are treed medians along 1/2 of that half, and they are 50 feet wide, that gives us approximately 71,488 acres. Assuming that the trees are 16 feet apart, on average, that’s 170 trees/acre, or just over 12 million trees.
    Now bud, in your final solution to the tree problem, you are advocating the elimination of over 12 million innocent trees. You know who else killed over 12 million innocents?


  10. Silence

    “The odds of people dying in a terrorist attack obviously are still a lot lower than in a car accident, unfortunately,” – Barack Hussein Obama
    So is Obama hoping that more people might die from terrorist attacks? ‘Cause that’s what he said.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Or, that too many people die in car accidents. You can lower the car death rate for the same result. But you knew that…..

  11. Norm Ivey

    My bride and I took a road trip to Charleston today, and I paid attention to the trees in the median. There are some that come very close to the roadway–closer than I recalled. But what really struck me was how unkempt the interstate seemed to be. The ditches needed mowing, trees were so overgrown they obscured highway signs, other signs were leaning at crazy angles, but without any apparent crash damage, and road grass was growing up through the paved shoulder. It was especially ugly through Dorchester County. It looked like no one cared….

    1. Mark Stewart

      I think that is the section DOT is going to work over for our safety. If they do a good enough job, careless drivers will be able to crash onto to frontage roads with only the Right of Way fencing to fly through.


      1. Silence

        Trees are already there, so they are free. Cutting them costs money and installing median cables costs money as well. Plus you have to plant grass and mow the freshly cleared medians.

    1. Doug Ross

      Since the government workers won’t…. they would likely send out six “workers” to cut down each tree. One to do the cutting and five to stand around and watch.

  12. Silence

    I’d like to hear bud’s take on Richland County’s decision to pave a bunch of rural roads on the cheap…

  13. Kathryn Fenner

    I’m thinking all the rain has caused the mowing to fall behind. Grass is a-growin’ but nobody can be mowin’….

    1. Libb

      Could also be attributed to the repair work on the 25 ft sinkhole that spanned the width of one eastbound lane and reduced traffic to one lane on both east and west sides of I-26 for most of July.

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