Santee forest lab key to research

tyrone walker/staff Carl Trettin of the USDA-Forest Service closes up a stream-gauging station Wednesday on Turkey Creek in the Francis Marion National Forest.

CORDESVILLE — The water is cleaner in the Lowcountry partly because of an obscure laboratory behind a red picket fence in the Francis Marion National Forest.

Commercial pine is grown more efficiently, and controlled burns handled better, partly because of the lab’s work.

And not too far in the future, as seas and rivers rise throughout the Lowcountry, the effects on everything from freshwater supplies to waterfront development might be managed smarter.

That’s how significant the little- regarded Santee Experimental Forest is to people who live along the coast.

The forest celebrates its 75th anniversary this month, in the same low-key way its staff of eight go about their business.

The 6,100-acre tract carved out of the national forest near Huger Creek is a living lab, a natural environment proving ground that gives scientists a base line to research how environmental changes impact an area.

The $1 million-per-year forested wetlands research center is one of 80 experimental forests in various types of environments across the United States.

Just one glimpse of the span of what the center does: A ground-breaking 17-year study recently was completed in the Duke Forest near Durham, N.C., pumping carbon dioxide into the air to see how well trees absorb the greenhouse gas load they are expected to face in the near future.

Some of those harvested trees are now in the Santee forest, where researchers will study how that carbon gets released into the air, ground and water as the tree decays.

The Charleston Harbor pollution study in the 1990s that led to tighter restrictions on industrial discharges, used computer modeling developed at the Santee lab for its work.

“The model provided the reference,” said Phil Dustan, a College of Charleston biologist who worked on the study.

“The study showed that what comes out of urban watersheds (is) a lot more nutrients, more pollution,” he said.

Hydrology, the study of water movement, is a focus of the lab’s work.

“The way we think about how water moves through a landscape is derived from mountain landscapes,” said Carl Trettin, the experimental forest’s team leader.

“But it’s much more nuanced in the Lowcountry,” where slopes and flows are subtler, and the water table tends to ripple up and down, he said.

“A difference of six inches of water depth can make a big difference in how much methane comes out of the soil, for example.”

Among other work, the center maintains a research database going back to the 1930s — an invaluable resource for today’s complex, nuanced computer modeling in coastal research.

“We’ve got sea level coming up, and a lot of uncertainty about whether we will have more or less rain coming down,” Trettin said. The ability to model that changing environment “is very important to people living on the coast.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.