Sell-off of East Edisto tract causing ‘forest fragmentation’ – Charleston Post Courier

The Post and Couriers John McDermott reported on more than 12,000 acres of forestland being acquired by a solid conservationist (Land deal by South Carolina video chain pioneer provides happy ending, Aug. 6). That surely was a happy ending, but the article coincidentally reported on a trend that does not have such a happy ending.

That forestland was part of former MeadWestvacos large East Edisto tract where more than 30,000 acres in Charleston County have changed hands in about 15 sales over the past three years. That trend is large tracts of forestland being subdivided into smaller and smaller tracts, some remaining forestland, some being developed, and, in fortunate cases, some being acquired for conservation purposes. There are consequences to smaller tracts.

Those consequences have technical names: forest parcelization and forest fragmentation. Parcelization occurs first, when a change in ownership results in a large forest property being subdivided into smaller properties. If the new owners take no further action, then the forest remains intact. However, say one or more of the smaller properties are developed. Forest fragmentation then occurs, with the forest being physically separated by areas of nonforest. This produces all kinds of negative ecological changes, especially impacting wildlife populations and water quality.

This is an important trend, impacting all of the nations private forests. In the early 1990s Westvaco owned over a half million acres in South Carolina, much of it near Charleston. Most of it is now sold off to timberland investors and recreational buyers. That land was prime timberland, producing tremendous amounts of wood that helped fuel the local economy. Nearly all of it was bought up by timberland investors and is still being managed to produce a timber crop. Gradually more and more of it will be developed or become recreation property, and cease to be timberland.

Those timberlands support one of the states top manufacturing sectors. Forest products contribute $21 billion to the states economy and provide employment to 84,000 South Carolinians. Just over two-thirds of South Carolina is forested (about 13 million acres) and 88 percent of that is privately owned. The public portion provides little timber for the economy. Timber production is on the huge private portion of the forest that is being slowly eroded by parcelization.

Of the 11.5 million acres of private forestland, 7.3 million acres are owned by families and individuals. These are mostly small ownerships that average about 66 acres. There are 212,000 family forest ownerships in South Carolina, but only 90,000 of them contain 10 or more acres. Less than 10 acres is essentially a backyard and not a forest in a real sense. Time is carving out more and more backyard forests.

As the old forest industry lands and family forests become smaller and smaller, management for timber production, wildlife or water quality becomes more and more difficult; its a matter of economies of scale. Smaller forests are more costly to manage on a per acre basis. They tend to be less likely to be managed under sustainable forest management and far less likely to be producing timber. Parcelization and fragmentation on the East Edisto tract is highly visible; changes to family forests are more insidious, with long-term consequences to the states environment and economy.

Forest policy can help reduce the impact. How timber is taxed as income affects the attractiveness of managing a forest. Current use valuation of forestland, where it is valued as a productive forest and not for its development potential, is a powerful incentive to keep land growing trees. Conservation easements protect some forests. Educating forest owners in proper estate planning can see that forests are held for generations. There is no shortage of policy tools.

Even if you dont care about the states economy, wildlife, natural resource based recreation or soil conservation, you probably do care about water. Much alarm has been raised lately concerning South Carolinas surface and ground water. Forests are watersheds and these changes will impact water quality. Connect the dots and the East Edisto story directly relates to the Aug. 6 editorial on the surface water free-for-all. Connect the dots and changes to the states forests affects a lot more than the trees.

Thomas J. Straka is a professor of forestry and environmental conservation at Clemson University.

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Sell-off of East Edisto tract causing 'forest fragmentation' - Charleston Post Courier

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