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Forestry management important to South Carolina

December 01, 2016   By Elizabeth Kress in Environmental Stewardship

The Pinelands biomass plant near Harleyville, S.C., operated by EDF Renewable Energy, is capable of producing up to 17.8 megawatts of renewable energy derived from forestry and wood products found in South Carolina. Santee Cooper purchases energy from the plant and from a similar facility in Allendale County.

The forests in South Carolina are impressive and something that you notice as you drive anywhere in the state.

The trees push right up to the roads, often making a canopy. Walk a short way into the woods and you will notice the quiet that wraps and insulates you. Prior to Hurricane Hugo, the ride to Santee Cooper’s Wampee Conference Center gave you a feeling of going back in time because the trees seemed to pull you into a tunnel toward a previous age.

Recently, I was privileged to meet with some biomass experts on a U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Forest Service effort. The work involves modeling the available woody biomass resource within the state borders of South Carolina. Our S.C. Forestry Commission has a good handle on the size or “volume” of forests in our state.

They update the forest inventory numbers regularly, and are knowledgeable on the forces that affect both the supply and the demand for trees. The primary tool for tracking this is the Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA), which is an accounting that is made using standards intended to be common for all states in the U.S. The model that is planned would allow that state to understand some “What if?” scenarios. What if the demand for dimensional wood (think 2 by 4s) goes up? What if paper use declines?

You may be glad to know that the forests of South Carolina have more standing wood than ever recorded, and the recording started in 1936. The total volume of the forest was less than 10 million cubic feet in 1936, and now stands at 25 million cubic feet. Keeping these forests healthy requires some level of use of the wood. Santee Cooper manages its forestry holdings on land around lakes Marion and Moultrie.

A mix of trees of different ages is important, and when one age class dominates, the forests can experience stresses that cause harm. In California, over 100 million trees have died due to drought stress in the past two years, leading to wildfire problems across large populated areas. The U.S. Forest Service has had to divert funds to fight fires out West, instead of investing in forest health – such as by clearing underbrush or planting new trees.

Biomass plants like those in Dorchester and Allendale counties that supply electricity to Santee Cooper provide a market for low-value woody biomass. Having this market allows landowners to sell wood and improve forest health overall. Like having too many hyenas in “The Lion King” movie, our South Carolina forests can have too much of one type or age class of tree and get all out of kilter.

There are efforts around the world to track forested lands because it is an essential measure of carbon in storage. Widespread loss of acreage in rain forests and other areas is a major concern. Maintaining a healthy balance of forest use and growth will allow South Carolina to preserve the natural beauty and wildlife that makes this state a great habitat for its residents. When you get a chance, thank a South Carolina forester.