FEATURE ‌ A Tree Burns in Charleston 

Protecting the Francis Marion Forest steps on progress' toes

click to enlarge Awendaw town administrator Dan Martin wants to make sure a pact protecting the Francis Marion National Forest from developers also protects Awendaw
  • Awendaw town administrator Dan Martin wants to make sure a pact protecting the Francis Marion National Forest from developers also protects Awendaw

The Francis Marion National Forest has been through a lot.

Logging by colonists reduced it to a fraction of its original size. During the Revolutionary War, Gen. Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion ambushed British soldiers with guerilla warfare in the swamps of the forest that bears his name.

It was ravaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Thanks to accidental fires, like the one Congressman Henry Brown (R-S.C.) lit in 2004, chunks of it burn down on a regular basis.

And, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it gets hit by lightning. A lot. According to NOAA's lightning strike maps, the heaviest concentrations are along the Southeast coast.

Lightning strikes lead to wildfires, which have lead to ecosystems anchored around the Francis Marion's longleaf pines evolving over thousands of years.

Today, the forest is not big enough to let wildfires burn through their natural course.

The USDA Forest Service's "controlled burns" are necessary to keep the forest sustaining its inhabitants, which include such endangered and threatened species as the red-cockaded woodpecker, the American alligator, a variety of rare plants, and the nation's animal totem, the bald eagle. Many of the forest dwellers and the trees themselves thrive in the wake of the flames.

But in the 1990s, the Forest Service scaled back controlled burning from major roadways after motorists were blinded by smoke, causing several accidents.

Today, adding insult to injury, the forest faces a potential assault of real estate development and federal government sell-offs.

Most of the Francis Marion's 250,000 acres are publicly owned, but not all of them. President Bush has plans to sell off more land to pay for grants to rural communities, and developers are already talking about building. More development would mean less burning to avoid lawsuits. Less burning would also mean an unhealthy forest.

In response, the City of Charleston launched a preemptive strike to thwart developers in and around the forest by signing a regional development pact to not rezone land in and around the forest for higher density housing.

The pact invokes the memory of President Franklin Roosevelt, who signed legislation marking the land as a national forest in 1936. The new pact demands that responsible parties "must unite to protect this national treasure from the adverse impacts of poorly planned growth and ensure its longevity as a national treasure for future generations."

The "responsible parties" being Charleston, Mt. Pleasant, Charleston County, Berkeley County, McClellanville, and Awendaw, in addition to the Forest Service and local water companies, which have been asked not to run sewer lines to the forest.

So far, the City of Charleston was the only municipality to have signed the agreement.

"We agree with 80 percent of what the pact says," says Awendaw Town Administrator Dan Martin, who adds that the town is still deliberating the issue, despite a recent story in The Post and Courier that claimed its Town Council voted it down unanimously.

Martin says the town, which doesn't welcome large development, won't sign on unless some areas of town receive sewers, and it wants protection from Mt. Pleasant and the City of Charleston annexing land in their direction.

Mark Nix, executive director of the South Carolina Landowners Association, an organization which fights for property rights throughout the state, often putting it at odds with any land use regulations, says his organization has yet to take an official stance on the issue.

"The counties have every right to zone the area," says Nix, adding that he has met with conservationists and biologists to discuss the matter.

Even if none of the other municipalities agree to sign the pact, the water companies are the ones holding the axe. No sewers, and it's no dice for developers.

Waste treatment facilities are expensive to build, and the soil will accommodate only so many septic tanks per acreage. South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control regulations will not allow for higher density housing developments without sewer lines to protect the public from its own excrement.

The South Carolina Coastal Conservation League's Jane Lareau says there may be people who will argue that access to sewer lines falls under their property rights. To them, she says, it's "not property rights; it's land speculation." Buying land to make money is a gamble like any other investment, she says.

Lareau went on to say the public should not subsidize developers by having public utilities constructing new sewer lines.

Mt. Pleasant Waterworks general manager Clay Duffie says the utility has yet to decide whether or not they will extend sewage services towards the forest, and the utility will seek public comment before a final decision is made. Even if the water company runs the lines, their customers will not have to foot the bill. Duffie says developers pay impact fees to cover the cost of new lines.

And so it remains uncertain if it will be the forest, or the developers, or the homeowners who'll be on the receiving end of a "controlled burn."


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