Laurel Hill County Park is centrally located near Highways 17 and 41. Given its location, many citizens in the area have begun to raise questions and concerns about the timber harvest taking place at the park.
The current forest management activities are being carried out as a fulfillment of Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission's (CCPRC) lease agreement with Wells Fargo as the designated trustee of the former land owner, John D. Muller.
The park is currently closed on weekdays and open to the public on weekends while the tree thinning process takes place.
CCPRC senior planner Matt Moldenhauer explains that the process, which began on June 24, is necessary to remove trees and debris to improve the quality of the forest of Laurel Hill County Park.
"Reducing the overall amount of wood in the forest is important because it provides more space and sunlight for the trees left standing on site. The presence of vines, suspended pine needles, dead branches and dead trees does present some fire-related risks, so both CCPRC and the trustee want to keep the park safe and healthy and those are bi-products of this particular operation. Meanwhile we're also increasing the biodiversity of the site," he said.
Moldenhauer explained how trees in some areas of the southern end of the park are so close together, they are actually killing each other – a process known as “stem exclusion.” The thinning operation allows plants to get the resources needed to survive.
Initially with any thinning operation, a certified forester visits the park and surveys the biomass of the forest. Then the forester defines how much wood should be removed based on the average square feet per acre of wood, or basal area).
Currently, the southern half of the park has a basal of 140 square feet per acre. Moldenhauer explains that on the ground this looks like a very dense, shaded forest with vines growing in trees and pine needles everywhere. The machines are going in and knocking those things down and essentially bringing all suspended materials down to ground level. Nearly 50% of the trees in the southern end of the park will be removed to create a healthy basal area for growth.
Moldenhauer says that through the process, the stifling environment will transform into a healthy area providing more space for trees to grow.
"It’s a better place for wildlife, it’s a safer place and the air feels cleaner," he said.
As someone who has scheduled several timber sales for CCPRC and seen the aftermath, Moldenhauer said that it can be a shock at first to see the changes of the wood being removed. But, if you're patient and know what to expect, within a year he says the park will look and feel a lot better.
He says once the sunlight can hit the forest floor again it will stimulate plant growth and open the air space. Also, this kind of forest management isn't an unusual thing for CCPRC to do. They are currently in the draft phase of the management plan for Laurel Hill County Park and will be adding maps, graphic plans and updates that will be posted on their website in coming weeks.
Moldenhauer says timber management and ongoing forestry in coordination with the land trustee will always need to take place on the property.
Lately, CCPRC has seen a flood of questions from the public. He is hopeful members of the public will continue to ask questions to stay educated on what's happening in the park.
Given some recent questions, he explains that CCPRC staff makes sure that roads and trails are stable enough to withstand the logging trucks and timber management activities happening at Laurel Hill. They are coordinating with the trustee to make sure the park is suitable for opening as soon as possible following the completion of the timber sale.
They aren't sure if they will harvest the northern side of the park yet. But, the planning staff is hopeful that the foresters can proceed to the north area following finishing the southern end rather than opening the park back up and doing it later. Moldenhauer says the north end is ready for a timber harvest and if they do the entire park in one round, it wouldn't need to be thinned for another 10 or so years.
Moldenhauer explains that in the early part of the 1900s a pecan orchard was established on the southern half of the Laurel Hill property. Later, loblolly pine naturally regenerated in the same area, and overwhelmed the pecan orchard. To try to call attention to this historic resource, CCPRC staff flagged every pecan tree on the property for the loggers to perform "daylighting", by cutting a 20-25 foot radius around them. They are also removing pine trees that are smothering the live oak trees on the property to improve their health. They also cleared a 2.5 acre area so that when cars enter the park from Highway 41 for events, they can park in this designated area instead of under the famous allee of oaks on the property. Driving over a root system of any tree is harmful and can potentially shorten the life of a tree.
"We have no interest in shortening the life of the trees as much as we can avoid it. We’ve known for a while that we wanted to create a parking area separate from the allee so we can minimize damage to the root systems of those trees," Moldenhauer said.
He explains that the allee of oaks has historic significance and when CCPRC staff is out there to help park cars for events they try to avoid parking within their root zone as much as possible. The new 2.5 acre buffer is still within walking distance of the allee.
"That means we can accommodate cars for events, we don’t damage the oaks; it’s a win-win as far as we’re concerned," he said.
He explains that this clear cut is not for greed; but instead for a strategic, intelligent planning reason.
Should the loggers be able to continue their work on the northern half of the park, more clearing may take place. Other than the 2.5-acre parking area, any additional cleared areas will be re-planted with mast-producing hardwood trees and other beneficial plant life species in the park. They are trying to diversify the landscape as well as create a place for educational opportunities on land management.
“Forestry is still the state’s leading manufacturing industry in terms of jobs and payroll. And so what we’re trying to do is in time create a place where we could passively educate the public about one of states most important industries," he said.
As the plan to establish a “resource demonstration area” in the northern part of the park is implemented, he said that when people visit Laurel Hill to walk a 1/3 or 1 mile loop trail they will eventually see interpretive signs with information about the land management activities taking place. The signs will be similar to those found at other natural or historic sites, with images, graphics, and descriptive text. Some of the signs may include information about the park’s historical connection to the nearby Phillips Community.
Moldenhauer is hopeful the community will understand the big picture better once the park's plan is released. He anticipates the southern end (nearly 115 acres) of the park's timber harvesting will be complete by mid-August. If the northern end (nearly 200 acres) of the park undergoes timber harvesting following the southern end, he thinks it would be completed by early to mid-October.
The wood from the timber harvesting is going to a mill in Georgetown. Moldenhauer could not comment on which of the trustee’s beneficiaries will receive money for the timber sale, as CCPRC isn't involved in that part of the process.
"If people want to use trails during the week in Mount Pleasant they should go to Palmetto Island County Park, off Longpoint Road or they're certainly welcome at any other Charleston County Parks. What's happening at Laurel Hill County Park and what people would be able to observe there on weekends is known as ‘active forest management’," Moldenhauer said.
He said that they are doing their best at balancing stewardship of land in a high pressure environment, with all eyes of the community on the project. He hopes people will understand that forestry is a good thing, and that responsible land management can be beneficial to a park's long term prospective.
"We know what's going on with the Laurel Hill timber sale, and we recognize how important this site is to the community. The public should understand that active land management is happening at other Charleston County Parks, in the form of timber thinning, understory fuel management with prescribed fire, re-establishing longleaf pine plant communities. It's because it's the responsible thing to do and because we care about the land that we do things like this. It's not the other way around," he said. “It’s an essential part of land stewardship in the Lowcountry.”
Questions about the planned timber thinning should be directed to CCPRC Senior Planner Matt Moldenhauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 843-762-2172. For more information on Laurel Hill County Park, visit CharlestonCountyParks.com or call 843-795-4386.