Help plan forest’s future

A rivulet of fire snakes through a section of the Francis Marion Forest that was the target of a controlled burn. (Staff photo)

The Francis Marion National Forest is one of the most significant natural assets of the Lowcountry because of its beauty, its recreational opportunities and the array of wildlife that makes a home there — some of it threatened or endangered.

But natural assets — particularly those like the Francis Marion that are surrounded by more and more people and development — need to adapt, and need help to do so.

That’s where those who appreciate the forest come in.

The National Forest Service is the primary steward of the 405 square miles of forest. Rangers do controlled burns, remove underbrush and manage public use of the forest. And it’s time for them to set some new goals for the next 15 years.

They’ve got some ideas — almost 200 pages of them in a proposed management plan. But they want input from the public. The conversation should be of interest to many people — from birdwatchers to hunters.

After Hurricane Hugo, the NFS set as its goal reforesting huge swaths of forest that had been decimated by winds.

Now it’s time to move in different directions. But managing the forest can be tricky as subdivisions work their way up to the edges of the forest. Controlled burns can be annoying to people who live close by. But they also help prevent forest fires, allow for trees, primarily longleaf pines, to be planted and a valuable ecosystem to be restored.

That tension is one reason conservationists are so concerned about plans to develop Cainhoy Plantation — zoned by the city of Charleston for 19,000 houses on 9,000 acres, some of which would be just across the road from the National Forest.

That would be a conflict waiting to happen.

And delaying or forgoing controlled burns is unwise. It could result in wildfires that might cost a lot to tame, while threatening people, homes and wildlife.

Indeed, in 2014, wildfires burned 3.6 million acres in the U.S. at a cost of $1.52 billion. In 2013, 4.32 million acres were charred; and in 2012, 9.33 million acres.

A wide range of input into the plan for the Francis Marion is needed — from conservationists to horseback riders, hikers and anglers. The plan is online at www.fs.usda.gov.scnfs. The more informed the planning is, the better for all concerned.

Proposed goals include restoring and managing the historic longleaf pine savannas; getting rid of invasive plants and pests; reducing the risk of wildfires; rerouting man-made canals to improve water quality; and conserving native fish and wildlife.

The future of the Francis Marion National Forest is in question.

The National Forest Service will schedule public meetings in October after people have had time to read and consider the proposals.

Speak up and help keep the forest healthy.