JAMESTOWN -- The overcup oak is one of those hardwood swamp bottom trees that most people couldn't even name. Hollow and stringy-fibered, the tree is considered worthless for timbering.
The oak grows huge, though, and it gets in the cutters' way. Its sweeping crown is massive, and drops a lot of acorns, so the tree dominates the bottoms and attracts animals. Wildlife, outdoors enthusiasts and hunters are drawn to it.
In the remote Wee Tee State Forest, that's the stuff of conflict.
Contractors working for the state are clear-cutting large timber tracts -- including the overcup oak -- in the out-of-the-way Santee River bottoms forest across the river from Jamestown in Berkeley County. Clear-cutting is removing all or nearly all the trees at once.
Two Mount Pleasant attorneys want it to stop. They have filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the S.C. Forestry Commission for records of the timbering harvest in the 12,000-acre forest the state bought nine years ago.
The dispute drives to the heart of the recurring battle over publicly owned forests: balancing uses. The lands are revenue-producing timber tracts. They are sought-after acres for recreation. And they hold an opportunity to restore native bottomlands for people and wildlife that have been overrun by centuries of timbering and other pursuits.
One of the men fighting the clear-cutting is Ellison Smith IV, an environmental attorney who has forged a reputation as a lawyer of choice for developers struggling with regulatory agencies.
The other, Gray Taylor, is a real estate lawyer with forestry degrees.
The two hunt back in the forest, and Smith said it holds the biggest overcup oaks he's ever seen, as well as cypress and other large trees.
"I want to make sure (the forest) is managed in an appropriate way, to produce revenue value and to benefit wildlife," Smith said.
"Most people have never seen a tree this big," Taylor said. If it's clear-cut, "that's two generations of people who will never walk in that kind of forest (being sacrificed) for $800 per acre for wood chips."
Forestry officials are a little flummoxed. Every inch of the Wee Tee has been timbered before, they said.
Previous timbering company owners "went in, took the biggest and the best (timber), and left those trees of lower quality," said Harvey Belser, forest director.
The idea behind clear-cutting is to restore the natural mix of tree species and to provide transitional open-land habitats for wildlife, Belser said. The cut acres are dispersed among acres of various stages of growth.
Getting to the nub of this dispute means understanding "high-grade" timber harvesting.
Timber companies owned the tract before the state bought it in 2003 and practiced high-grade harvesting:
When the price was good for a certain type of wood, say ash, those were the trees the company cut. It amounted to selective logging rather than clear-cutting, leaving weaker or unwanted trees, like the overcup.
So in the Wee Tee bottoms, some overcups were felled to get them out of the way. But a lot of them were left standing.
Along with the cypress, they make up some of the biggest trees in the bottoms today.
When the state took over the Wee Tee tract, the approach changed. The state is clear-cutting tracts 100 acres at a time, a few hundred acres per year, taking all but a handful of older-growth trees. The overcups go to chip mills.
The cutting is producing an average revenue of nearly $200,000 per year.
The Wee Tee is a river bottom hardwood swamp. It's not a flat swath of flooded bottom but a rolling landscape of low ridges and cypress sloughs. Its centerpiece is Wee Tee Lake, a narrow, cypress-fringed lake that looks more like a river.
The logging is taking place mostly in the most remote acres between the lake and the Santee, with one poorly bridged road and little access except by boat.
"Clear-cutting is the best option we have. I feel we're going at it in an environmentally sound way," Belser said. "We want to restore (Wee Tee) to its original glory. It's not going to happen tomorrow, probably not in my lifetime. It's going to take some growing pains. It's going to take a long time."
"That's ridiculous. You don't go in and clear-cut big square blocks. They're doing it because it's easier, nobody cares, it's out of sight and it keeps them in revenue," Taylor said. "It's like DOT (the state Department of Transportation) following a 1950s road manual."
The better approach would be to cut smaller blocks and leave large trees where wildlife feeds, he said.
"You'd think a public forest would want to set a better example," he said.
Taylor and Smith plan to pursue this, they said.
"It takes 60 years for a bottom hardwood to mature, and they will have clear-cut the entire tract in 20 years. You're not going to have a dang tree left," Smith said. The bottoms are isolated and hard to navigate, but "the people of South Carolina still need a place to go that's scary, or potentially scary."
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