BETHERA -- The beaten old Dr. Seuss forest sign on the side of S.C. Highway 41 would be a shame. Except the Lorax lives!
Behind the road sign announcing the 1998 Dr. Seuss Lorax Forest planting, longleaf pines stretch away for acres on acres through the Francis Marion National Forest, animated in the breeze. You can almost hear the title character in today's hit movie "The Lorax" -- the "strange little man 'who speaks for the trees' " -- sighing in relief.
The movie opened last weekend to estimated ticket sales of more than $70 million, the biggest box office debut of the year, fueled by at least two generations of parents and children who couldn't wait to see the film of the environmentalist-message book by famed children's author Dr. Seuss, a book they loved as kids.
The 1970s book revolves around the utter destruction of the forest of trufulla trees, and the child hero who gets the "last one of all" trufulla seeds to replant. The 30- to 50-acre Francis Marion stand was planted in 1998 to replace pines that were flattened by Hurricane Hugo. Fundraising by the Dr. Seuss Lorax Project and American Forests, a conservation nonprofit, paid for the effort.
The effort then disbanded. Today, the Lorax Project plants trees overseas. Traffic on the highway tends to move too fast for the sign to be read, and few people realize that the heart of the forest's more than 35,000 acres of longleaf pines is this stand that bears the name of Dr. Seuss.
But it wows them when they hear.
"Oh my … I didn't know that, " said Jeni Nix, catching her breath.
She is the media specialist at Knightsville Elementary School in Summerville, who took advantage of the movie's release to work the book into the Read Across America program for the students.
"I think this weekend, I should go visit it," said third-grader A.J. Richardson, 9.
A.J. still keeps a favorite Seuss book he learned to read with. And yes, he's seen the movie.
Hearing about the forest confirmed what he already knew about Dr. Seuss.
"He wrote his books for kids starting to read, then he took the money off his books and planted trees for our environment."
U.S. Forest Service district wildlife biologist Mark Danaher picks his way among the pines in the Lorax forest with a smile like a child. Seuss was one of his favorites, too, and the book made an early impression.
Nowadays he tells his daughters, "I get to be the Lorax in my forest."
And longleaf pine savannas have their own trufulla charm, home to 300 varieties of native plants, myriad birds, 170 species of reptiles and 36 mammals.
Sure, there aren't any teddy bear-like Bar-ba-olots, but there are black bears.
There aren't any exotic Swomee Swans, but there are endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers.
Like the trufulla, the longleaf didn't stand up to timbering or cheaper commercial pine planting. At one time, 90 million acres spread across the Southeast of the cathedral-like savannas of tall, straight trunks and tufted needle crowns. Today there are only 4 million acres in total.
The Dr. Seuss forest was an early reseeding in what has become -- Seuss-like -- a broad public and private campaign to restore the elegant savannas as part of the "sustainable forests" movement.
The Seuss effort might have disbanded here, but the legacy lives on. The Lorax Forest is doing fine.
"You've got to watch the canopy, make sure you have sunlight hitting the forest floor. You put (controlled burn) fire in an ecosystem like this, and all the flora and fauna benefit," Danaher said, looking around. "It's really amazing to think what this Lowcountry once looked like."
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or follow him on Twitter at @bopete.