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Commentary: McMaster tree initiative is promising, but cities can do more

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It was heartening to read the article in The Post and Courier about Gov. Henry McMaster’s initiative to plant a million loblolly pines throughout South Carolina to help fight stormwater runoff and flooding.

Loblolly pines grow very quickly — up to 2 feet per year. So the majority of the seeds that were recently planted should germinate and provide our landscape with trees pushing 20 feet tall in only 10 years.

Loblolly pines (pinus taeda) are the second-most populous tree in the United States, behind only the red maple. They are extremely valuable to many species of songbirds, woodpeckers, quail, eagles, doves and osprey, as well as deer, wild turkey and rabbits. They provide superior habitat for nesting and roosting, and their seeds are a wonderful food source for these species.

But there is much more to do to help our landscapes for the long term.

Will this pine reforestation project keep up with the rapid development and clearing of our landscapes? I think not. We need to accelerate our reforestation efforts and include many other species of trees indigenous to South Carolina that are being cut down and almost eliminated from our developed landscapes.

Land developers tend to favor planting palmettos, sago palms and other nonnative species such as the Bradford pear, while the beautiful native holly, magnolia, bay trees and the like are disappearing from our landscapes.

So too are cedar, dogwood, redbud, maple, hickory and numerous species of oak, mostly being replaced with rooftops, driveways, parking lots and roads. All of that accelerates stormwater runoff to our bodies of water and produces the frequent and devastating flooding we have experienced in recent years.

The native hardwoods are far more resistant to storm damage than loblolly pines, which can suffer a great deal of damage or loss even during a minimal hurricane. The pine population in Francis Marion National Forest was demolished in 1989 by Hurricane Hugo, a major Category 4 storm.

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These hardwood trees provide the same benefits to wildlife as pine trees and are favored for their tasty acorns and nuts. Hickory trees also provide beautiful yellow fall colors to enjoy. The maple and oak species contribute to the yellows, orange and reds of a beautiful fall palette.

We don’t see these as much anymore because there are so few being planted after a development is built. These trees provide aesthetic beauty and summertime shade that is beneficial in so many ways, and their root systems soak up rainwater under branches in their wide canopies. Pines typically do not offer similar amenities.

Still, bravo to Gov. McMaster, all those who helped with his initiative and the counties and municipalities that are looking into reforestation projects of their own. This is great stuff.

I suggest the following additional productive steps for municipal governments:

  • Encourage landowners, developers, homeowners and HOAs to plant the indigenous hardwood species, not from seed but as trees that are already 6 feet tall or larger,. That will improve landscapes faster.
  • Require developers to plant from a list of indigenous species. The trees' size should be determined through a quotient from the trees removed pre-development and the flooding impact of that development.
  • Make sure this plan includes advice from a certified arborist who can enlighten the planters on proper species, planting procedures and how much room the trees will need to be healthy. (For example, avoid planting too close to impervious surfaces and buildings that will adversely affect the planting.)
  • Make it attractive for people to plant by offering a land tax credit for the cost of the trees.
  • Produce brochures that outline the dozens of benefits from trees as described on the Arbor Day Foundation website.

These would be the cheapest and most effective steps we could take to address the flooding problem and beautify our landscapes.

Rick Baumann of Murrells Inlet is the founder and executive director of Trees For Tomorrow — A Lowcountry Legacy. The organization has planted more than 20,000 trees since 2012.

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