Alan Hawes // The Post and Courier

Brian Fiacco owns a 58-acre tree farm in Wassamassaw Swamp in rural Berkeley County.

Brian Fiacco seems to live in wilderness. On his 58-acre tree farm back in Wassamassaw Swamp, he roams the forest for deer and turkey, watches the wood duck flock on the beaver ponds, in with heron and wood stork.

He is the future of the South Carolina forest. Or maybe the future is creeping up on him.

Across the swamp from his land, the Wassamassaw Plantation subdivision is under construction -- 100 homes on 350 acres -- one of a number of small developments that have cropped up around him in the five years he has lived in rural Berkeley County. Just to the subdivision's east, as many as 10,000 homes could be built in the 4,000-acre Cane Bay Plantation.

To Cane Bay's south is the 5,000-acre Parks of Berkeley development, where 13,500 homes could be built. Businesses and industries are filling in the acres along Interstate 26 at the rim of the two developments, about five miles away. All of it was timber company pineland a decade ago.

That urbanization is the bottom line of the Southern Forest Futures Project management plan recently released by the U.S. Forest Service and state foresters: What to do about more people making more demands on shrinking woodlands.

In the booming Lowcountry, forest management already is changing to deal with them. The X factor in the whole equation: you. Partnerships, a lot of them public-private, will be needed to keep the Lowcountry in the pines and hardwood bottoms that are the identity of the place.

Fiacco's forest is one of the family-owned operations that now make up two-thirds of the state's 13 million forest acres. How they manage those lands will make the difference too.

South Carolina is about two-thirds forest and has been for a while. Not so long ago, it was a given. Timber companies owned more than one million acres in vast pine plantations. You could hop in a car and ride for miles down corridors of tall loblolly that dropped away to cool cypress swamps.

But over the past two decades or so, the companies began selling -- big time. A lot of forestland has been lost to development; a lot is now fragmented, sold acre by acre to private owners. In 2007, before the recession, the state was losing an estimated 200 acres per day. Public holdings like state and federal forests now find themselves ringed by subdivisions instead of woods or farms.

Because of their new suburban neighbors, forests face a number of threats like an exacerbated danger of wildfires. And it's harder for foresters to do the large controlled burns needed to keep wildfires down.

Thatch

Fiacco is a lifelong forester, a former Westvaco employee and a certified controlled burn technician. He makes no bones about how it's changed as more people have moved in.

"Burning is a problem. With the lawsuits, the smoke regulations, it gets worse all the time," he said. Burns already wait for days with the right combination of damp ground and light winds. Now burners must wait for winds that blow away from homes and roads.

"It cuts down the number of days you can burn, there's no doubt about that," he said. Fiacco didn't burn at all last winter because of timing and weather. He knows he has to get back after it. He keeps fire lanes cut around the perimeter of his forest. He thins the pine near his house. He knows it might not be enough.

"My neighbors don't burn and that bothers me," he said.

The mix of pine forests and rich peat bottoms on the coast make the region a tinderbox. The S.C. Forestry Commission keeps a gauge of how much flammable material can be found in different environs. In the coastal pinelands outside Charleston, it's 3 to 4 tons per acre. It has to burn to keep the threat of vast, intense, devastating fires under control.

Foresters use late-winter burns to clear away the thatch -- dry pine needles, leaves, limbs and other combustible material piled on the ground.

"It's more complicated when instead of one owner, it's 50 people in a subdivision that are not managing forests," said Paul Bradley, Francis Marion National Forest supervisor.

Today, fewer acres can be burned at a time and that means more thatch is out there for a wildfire to catch. An arson fire in March burned 2,400 acres at the national forest's edge along the South Santee River in Charleston County. It sparked evacuations and threatened historic structures. At the same time, a yard debris fire in the Sandridge community in Dorchester County got out of control and burned more than 1,200 acres.

In 2009, one of the largest wildfires in the state's history was set off in Horry County by burning yard debris. It torched 30 square miles of mostly pine stands, and did $25 million damage to some 70 homes in subdivisions.

Meanwhile, all but gone are the virtual armies of foresters, bulldozers and aerial water bombers that timber companies once used to fight wildfires. The burden has fallen largely on undermanned, budget-strapped state foresters. Those foresters, assisted by local fire departments, were stretched to their limit by the March blazes and other fires.

"I just have a hunch that something bad is going to happen before we get it right," Fiacco said.

Mesh

The forests are a lot more than the trees. As just one example, hundreds of thousands of the birds roost for the winter at the forest edge of Lowcountry marshes and feast in hordes on loblolly pine cone seeds. The region is considered a refuge for rare, recovering and everyday species in the millions -- birds that are in serious decline across the state and the country. The decline is blamed largely on loss of habitat.

In the Francis Marion, foresters are working much closer with their adjoining neighbors, going door to door to enlist cooperation and support when they burn. They are partnering more with hunting, fishing, recreation and conservation groups to open more opportunities, to get help acquiring buffer land, and to spread the word about problems like people-introduced invasive species like red bay disease or sudden oak death that can destroy a habitat.

Foresters see more of those partnerships forming in the future, a mesh resembling the public-private conservation push that made the 350,000-acre ACE Basin south of Charleston a national model.

"There's going to have to be partnerships. There has been an awful lot of conservation effort on the coastal plain and I think that's going to be an anchor on where we go from here," said Dave Wear, Southern Forest Future Project co-leader.

Fiacco thinks it will go further than that. He expects recreation groups such as hikers or hunt clubs pushed from the disappearing timberlands and crowding public lands to look more to private forests. So far, timber prices have allowed him to run a tree farm. There are other opportunities as development closes in.

"If I can't make it growing timber, maybe I can make it having a paintball range or a birdwatching sanctuary," he said.