Francis Marion National Forest
UNDER FIRE: The Francis Marion National Forest is a place of beauty and mystery, but outside forces threaten to overwhelm this treasure PART 1 of 4
By Tony Bartelme
Sunday, October 16, 2005
Edition: FINAL, Section: SECTION A, Page A1
The sky cracks and a billion volts shoot toward the Francis Marion National Forest, superheating the air along their jagged path, making the sound of thunder. The bolt strikes a pine tree in the forest, sparking a fire. Three centuries ago, when Seewee Indians roamed here in clothes made of Spanish moss, this fire could have spread and burned for months, maybe from the Cooper River to the Santee, or until a tropical storm doused it. But today, forest fires don't have this freedom, and Bill Twomey must stop this wildfire fast, even though part of him would love to see the forest burn.
Twomey runs the Francis Marion's burn program for the U.S. Forest Service, and he knows this forest needs fire to live. Without fire, many of its plants and animals will vanish, as they have in so many other places in the South. He knows fire makes the Francis Marion one of the rarest forests in the country. But he also knows that wildfires are like untamed animals; they're too dangerous to be around people. And the Francis Marion National Forest is increasingly surrounded by people and their cars and homes.
So, out come two bulldozers, two engine pumpers, a helicopter and men and women cutting firebreaks to block the 4-foot flames. They give this fire a name: "Lightning," and after three hours, they have Lightning under control. Just 5 acres burn, and now Twomey and his crew finally can focus on what they really need to do: Burn as much of the forest as they possibly can.
Twomey enjoys a good paradox, and the Francis Marion is filled with them, fire being the most important. Fires have burned this land for thousands of years — except for a few nearly disastrous periods of suppression in recent history. Instead of harming the forest, fire created one with an unparalleled biological richness, home to as many as 5,000 animal species, including several hundred types of mosquitoes and 36 kinds of snakes.
Because of this diversity, and because the government patched together and protected 240,000 acres in the 1930s to create the forest, the Francis Marion remains a mysterious place where plants eat bugs and alligators hide in swamps so quiet you can hear the blood rush through your ears. Just minutes from Mount Pleasant strip malls, some areas are so wild they might harbor animals long thought extinct. This forest has concealed things before, after all. Its namesake, Francis Marion, hid there during the American Revolution, springing from the cypress stands to prey on Redcoats. The Francis Marion always has seemed a place apart.
All this is at risk.
As the Charleston metro area expands and private forests are transformed into urban areas, the forest's importance as a greenbelt will grow. And while it might seem protected because of its status as a national forest, the Francis Marion is more like one of its endangered species: fragile and increasingly vulnerable. In fact, an in-depth look by The Post and Courier shows:
-- Federal and state officials are pushing for expensive road projects that could turn vast swaths into traffic cut-throughs, ruining efforts to restore longleaf forests to their natural states.
-- New residential developments in the forest could make it difficult to do controlled burns. In one corner of the forest, investors are eying two tracts that could house more than 37,000 people.
-- Without frequent burns, endangered species will vanish and the threat of catastrophic wildfires will grow. Some in the Forest Service fear that if they can't protect the public from fires, the government might have to unload public land.
-- Starting this fall, the Forest Service hopes to burn a record 67,000 acres of public forest, an increase that biologists say is long overdue. But the Forest Service lacks the money to reach this goal.
-- The Forest Service is about to develop a new master plan for the Francis Marion. As open space around the forest disappears, kayakers, timber cutters, hunters and others will compete for the same woods and water, increasing the potential for conflict.
-- At this critical time, some the forest's strongest allies, including retired Sen. Fritz Hollings and former state Sen. Arthur Ravenel, have left the political stage. On this stage now are politicians who favor highways through the forest or admit that the Francis Marion is a low priority.
THE BIG WOODS
On many maps, the Francis Marion looks like a solid green dam holding back the urbanization of the Charleston metro area. But these maps don't show the more than 130,000 acres of "inholdings" — privately owned land inside the national forest boundary.
Instead of a solid block of protected forest, the Francis Marion is more like Swiss cheese. More than 5,850 people live inside these cheese holes in nine towns and dozens of smaller communities. More people are headed there every year, and the Forest Service has little or no control over how this private land is developed.
Burning the forest around all these people is a challenge, and Twomey knows if something goes awry, he'll be facing lots of questions. Colleagues say privately he has one of the most stressful jobs in the agency. Twomey works for the government, which is protected somewhat against lawsuits, but he carries his own liability insurance just in case.
Twomey is a tall, wiry man with a hawk-like face. When he joined the Forest Service in the 1970s, he and many of his colleagues focused on growing pine trees fast. Over time, Twomey grew more aware of the forest's complexity, especially after a life-changing walk through a magical place called the "Big Woods."
The Big Woods is a privately owned plantation in Georgia with one of the nation's few patches of old-growth longleaf pine forest. When Twomey saw the old longleaf pines, he was awestruck. "Those trees were huge." Twomey had stepped back in time. "I had never seen anything like those trees before, and I'm a forester," he said.
A few hundred years ago, the entire Southeast — from Virginia to Texas — was covered with longleaf pine forests. Fires swept through these forests every two or three years, and over time, plants and animals developed special ways to survive and even thrive. The longleaf pine, for instance, has special protective bark, and the buds on young trees are surrounded by fire-resistant needles.
Settlers chopped down most of these pines to clear land for crops and use the durable wood for floors, house-framing and turpentine. Foresters also wrongly believed that fire was detrimental to healthy forests and began to suppress wildfires. Soon, faster-growing loblolly pines took over; the majestic longleaf pines vanished, and along with them, many animals and plants.
Today, the longleaf forest has shrunk from 90 million acres to 3 million, and only a tiny percentage of that is old- growth forest like the Big Woods. The Big Woods had been burned regularly over the past 50 years, and as Twomey gazed at the big trees, he felt as if he was in one of the great Western national parks. People really don't know what they're missing, he thought.
A mature longleaf pine forest has an open, airy, park-like feel because fires burn off the underbrush but spare the pines because of their protective bark. Because fewer shrubs and thickets crowd these forests, there's less fuel for wildfires. When fires do happen, they're usually more orderly, with flames just a few feet off he ground. Unlike Western forests, which can look charred for a decade after a fire, longleaf forests recover in a matter of months. Grasses and wildflowers sprout, and the forest looks cleansed, greener and more vibrant than before.
After seeing the Big Woods, Twomey thought, this is what needs to happen at the Francis Marion National Forest. His superiors had been thinking along the same lines. "We thought if we could pull it off, we could have a national showpiece." But the only way to do it would be to burn tens of thousands of acres every year, for decades. He knew this wouldn't be easy.
THE FIRING SQUAD
A prescribed burn is gardening on a massive scale. A good burn will sear a football-field-sized area of forest every minute. Twomey respects fire because he knows fire doesn't respect property lines or care about traffic on nearby roads, or about the people who live in the forest and have asthma. He knows if the fire gets away, it could burn with a force that's louder than a freight train, feed flames that shoot a hundred feet in the air and create a plume of smoke as big as a thundercloud. These plumes can affect flight paths to and from Charleston International Airport, generate complaints from residents from as far away as downtown Charleston and perhaps realize his biggest fear: a car wreck in which someone gets killed.
So, before a prescribed burn, Twomey and his crews draw up traffic-control plans and contact residents whose homes might be affected. They plug weather data into computers with software that predicts the shape of the smoke plume and where it might go. "Before a prescribed burn, it sometimes feels like my head is going round and round like a cylinder in a one-armed bandit." Twomey might pull the plug even if the computer models check out. Setting large fires is part gut feeling, part science, and no computer can yet match experience and human intuition.
Managing smoke is like controlling a wiggling 3-year-old: sometimes it behaves, sometimes it doesn't. The day after a fire, smoke from smoldering stumps can get trapped close to the ground by a temperature inversion, as if someone put a lid on the fire. The smoke will build up to the point where you can't see your hand in front of your face, much less the road.
People can be trapped in their homes. In the early 1990s, mostly during wildfires, smoke-filled roads blinded drivers, causing several car accidents. By 1996, Twomey and others in the Forest Service feared that another bad wreck could put the entire burn program in jeopardy, so they designed a special "smoke patrol." A dozen or more employees now man checkpoints and close roads during burns. Since 1997, there hasn't been a single traffic accident related to a controlled burn, Twomey said. But these smoke patrols are time-consuming and expensive.
If Twomey gives the green light, crews will head to the forest and set fires using drip torches, which look like watering cans filled with fuel. A helicopter may drop small spheres filled with combustible material. "It's a science, but it's also an art," he said. "We're painting the landscape with our drip torches." They use unnatural means to restore the land to a more natural state, another paradox. And though the work is exhausting, Twomey said there's something pleasing about watching a ground fire crawl across the landscape, and knowing that in a few months a blaze of bright green will return.
BIG BURN PLAN
Burning season typically begins in late fall and lasts through May, and Twomey has been extra busy this summer getting ready. This season, the Forest Service hopes to burn 67,000 acres, an area roughly the size of Moncks Corner, North Charleston and Summerville combined. It's a step toward making the forest more like the Big Woods, the way the forest used to be. It's also a goal that even Twomey says might not be realistic.
On average, the Forest Service has burned 28,000 acres a year in the Francis Marion during the past 10 years, less than half this year's goal. And, this year's season will have a new complication: Crews hope to burn areas that haven't seen fire for years, areas that are now dense walls of green and brown vegetation. Fires in these places will be hotter and less easy to control than areas burned on a regular rotation.
Meanwhile, the Francis Marion's burn program budget remains about the same, roughly $700,000. The war in Iraq and hurricanes Katrina and Rita will squeeze programs throughout the federal government, including the Francis Marion's burn program, said Twomey's boss, District Ranger Orlando Sutton. Added Twomey: "We know that we are trying to bite off more than we can chew."
If burning is so important to the forest's health, why not let those wildfires go? It's a question Twomey and the entire Forest Service have been wrestling with in recent years, especially after devastating wildfires chewed up 500,000 acres in Florida in 1998 and 1.4 million acres in the West in 2002. Several congressional reports have blamed the Forest Service's policies of fire suppression for letting forests grow unnaturally and dangerously thick.
But Twomey knows the decision to let a wildfire go is like picking up a hot poker: dangerous and something done with great care. Because so many people live in the forest, fires can quickly spread toward homes. In a few rare cases, in the right weather and when the fire is away from private properties or roads, they might let a wildfire burn, he said. "But the bottom line is that it's a liability issue. If someone gets killed or seriously injured, we'll end up on the witness stand, and a lawyer will ask: 'Why did you allow that fire to burn 500 acres when you could have contained it at 10 acres?' "
BURN OR BE BURNED
What if Twomey and his crews fail to burn the forest? More than anyone, Richard Porcher knows what's at stake.
Porcher has thick white hair and a white Abraham Lincoln beard without a mustache. He talks in explosive bursts, like a box of matches thrown in a campfire. He might know more about the Francis Marion National Forest than just about anyone. Four decades ago, he wrote a thesis on plants in the forest's Carolina bays. Since then, he has been in the forest countless times. He has taught botany at The Citadel for more than 25 years and written or co-written five books on the state's plants. Twomey took one of his courses and said, "Ninety percent of what I know about plants in the Francis Marion is from Dr. Porcher."
One time, Porcher and Patrick McMillan, who runs the herbarium at Clemson University, went to a stand of longleaf pines off Halfway Creek Road that had been on a regular controlled burn rotation. With endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers flying above, they marked off a spot of land roughly the size of two boxing rings and began counting plants. They found 132 species in that one plot.
That kind of diversity of plant life is seen only in a few places in the country, Porcher said. He and McMillan are wrapping up a paper documenting how the Francis Marion contains 1,690 plants species, including many that are found in only a few other places in the world. "This place has more rare plants than you can imagine!"
If these forests aren't burned regularly, wild orchids will disappear, along with plants such as toothache grass, used by folk doctors to numb teeth, Porcher said. So will the pitcher plants that trap bugs, and the grubs that live inside the plant's digestive tract.
Endangered species, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, would vanish because they require older stands of fire-dependent longleaf pine. So would American chaffseed, an endangered plant that also needs fire, and Southern sneezeweed, once used to cause sneezing in the belief that it would rid the body of evil spirits. Porcher can rattle off the plants and animals for hours.
"You've got to keep it burned!" he said, one afternoon, while paddling down Wambaw Creek. "You've got to get across to people that if you don't burn this forest, it's going to burn anyway, and then it would be a holocaust!" Wearing a pith helmet, he looks like a European explorer on an African safari. The Wambaw swamp has a different song than the longleaf forest; it's absolutely silent, except for the occasional hoot of a barn owl and the distant rumble of thunder. A dragonfly the size of sparrow dive-bombs a smaller critter in the water.
"You can go for four hours without seeing a single Hardee's," Porcher jokes, paddling the coffee-colored water. Past a giant cypress, he spots a yellow flower on a stump, Riverbank sundrops, a plant he named. "You don't have to go to Yellowstone to see nature. It's right here in our backyard."
SONG OF THE FOREST
On another day, Twomey walks in a longleaf forest to the Carolina bay that Porcher studied for his master's thesis so long ago. That morning a flying squirrel almost landed on his shoulder. This area has been burned regularly and it's coming along nicely, with wildflowers and butterfly-loving plants. The forest is a waterfall of sound, with buzzing insects and birds blending with the rustle of pine needles in the breeze. It has its own song, Twomey says. "One day, these will all be Big Woods." Maybe.
Soon, the Forest Service will begin work on a plan to manage the forest for the next 12 to 15 years, but Twomey worries about the difficulty of burning the forest as Mount Pleasant and Charleston grow closer. He worries about the political will to keep burning over the next 40 to 50 years.
Time may be the forest's biggest enemy, but it also might be its best friend, another paradox. With time and fire, the trees could grow and seduce people with their size and beauty, creating new defenders. "I can only imagine what these trees will look like in 50 years," Twomey says. Around him, the forest plays its symphony. "It will be magnificent."