"They took all the trees/Put 'em in a tree museum
And they charged the people/A dollar and a half just to see 'em."
— Joni Mitchell, "Big Yellow Taxi"
They actually charge $8 to get into the tree museum in Dorchester County these days. But it's still a bargain and a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.
"It's a slice of old growth forest you cannot find anymore," says Mike Dawson, director of Francis Beidler Forest. "It's the largest tract of virgin cypress-tupelo forest left anywhere."
It's a triumph that the Audubon Society has been able to preserve this 1,800-acre piece of forest less than 50 miles from downtown Charleston, but seeing it does prompt a poignant sense of loss at what was once part of our world and now is gone forever. Walking through the hauntingly beautiful swamp, safe and dry on the 7,000-foot boardwalk, you can get a sense of what the land looked like before industrial logging harvested the ancient cypress trees from the landscape at the turn of the last century. At Beidler Forest, there are still 1,000-year-old bald cypress trees and at least one that dates back 1,500 years, Dawson says.
From the earliest years of European settlement, cypress was valued as a plentiful and durable wood. Our ancestors used it to build their houses, barns, churches, and bridges. Cypress shingles covered the roofs and sides of their buildings.
The millions of acres of Southern cypress swamp might have lasted forever, but like so many other resources, it fell victim to greed and modernity. Early tractors opened roads into the swamps; steam-powered saw mills cut thousands of board feet a day; steam ships and locomotives opened distant markets for this valuable product. Its strength, light weight, and durability made it the wood of choice for builders and homeowners around the country. Armies of loggers descended on Southern swamps from the Chesapeake Bay to Texas, and millions of cypress trees went down.
One of the men who built the industry was a Chicago lumber baron named Francis Beidler. Beidler bought tens of thousands of acres of Southern swampland in the economically depressed region and turned the trees into consumer goods. Beidler was also a conservationist who had visited Yellowstone National Park shortly after its creation. Before his death in 1924, he set aside some of his land to be spared from the lumberman's ax. One of those tracts was in the Midlands of South Carolina; it later became Congaree National Park. The other was in Four Holes Swamp in Dorchester County; it was purchased from the Beidler family in the 1970s by the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy and became Francis Beidler Forest.
Beidler Forest is a wonder of biodiversity, providing a home to an amazing variety of flora and fauna, many of which are hardly ever seen outside this rarefied environment.
The only thing more impressive than Beidler Forest's beauty and rarity is that it is still owned by the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy and operates entirely on private funds from corporate partners, foundation grants, hunting and fishing leases, and visitor admissions. Between 10,000 and 12,000 people come through the visitor center and stroll down the boardwalk through the swamp each year, Dawson says.
More people would come to Beidler Forest if they understood it better, he adds.
"People hear that it's a swamp, and they react strongly. They say, 'It stinks. It's full of snakes and alligators.' People are terrified of snakes," he says, shaking his head with amusement.
In fact, clear water flows through the swamp at Beidler Forest. There is no "swampy" smell of decaying vegetation. Any alligators in the forest are likely to be in the lake at the end of the boardwalk, not in the swamp under it. As for snakes, few of the ones in the Beidler habitat are poisonous, and all of them would go out of their way to avoid confronting a human. I have found that the most threatening wildlife at the forest were the voracious mosquitoes — and the staff provided repellent to deal with those.
In an age of shrinking public funding for parks, recreation, and wildlife preservation, Beidler Forest deserves our support. With its canoe trips, guided walks, and other programs to educate and involve people in the life of the swamp and forest, Beidler is a regional treasure still undiscovered by most of the Lowcountry. You could start your discovery by going to beidlerforest.com.
Francis Beidler Forest is a reminder of what we have lost and what we must work constantly to preserve. We won't get a second chance.
See Will Moredock's blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.