Setting a course for a sustainable landscape
On Saturday, August 16, the Francis Marion National Forest hosted another session of their ongoing series of topical meetings to engage the public in the current Forest Plan Revision. This meeting covered prospective additions to wilderness areas, wild and scenic river designations, and possible expansion of recreational and cultural awareness activities. At the outset, those seemed to me to be simple questions. Why not, I asked, protect our precious natural resources as much as possible? Over the course of the meeting, I discovered that the planners have very challenging choices to find balance between competing objectives.
The Francis Marion National Forest already contains four designated wilderness areas in the National Wilderness Preservation System: Hell Hole Bay, Wambaw Creek, Little Wambaw Swamp, and Wambaw Swamp. The planning process requires that the Forest Service identify and evaluate additional areas that might meet the eligibility requirements for new wilderness areas. One new separate area and several expansions of existing areas have been identified.
The planners' next step will be an evaluation phase, which is where the challenges come in. The restrictions that are part of wilderness designation may conflict with other important objectives in the forest plan. For example, restoring longleaf pine to more of its historic range is a major goal, but the wilderness area prohibition of wheeled vehicles would make it more difficult and expensive to maintain fire breaks and conduct the prescribed burns necessary for longleaf to prosper. Other forest personnel involved in protecting rare habitats and threatened/endangered species might also be less successful if hindered by wilderness area restrictions. After the evaluation phase, the Forest Supervisor decides whether or not to recommend any wilderness area. The decision is then outside the Forest Service, requiring approval by a review board and finally an act of Congress.
One topic of discussion following the wilderness area presentation was a question from local firefighters about ATV rescues in a wilderness area. The answer was that the Forest Supervisor can authorize wheeled rescues. The forest personnel present recorded a follow up note of “911 coordination”.
Wild and Scenic Rivers
There are currently no wild and scenic rivers in the Francis Marion National Forest. As required, planners have identified streams that might be eligible for such designation, including sections of the lower Santee River, Wambaw Creek, Echaw Creek, Wabdoo Creek, and Awendaw Creek.
Wild and scenic river designation is less restrictive than wilderness area designation but would include a commitment by forest managers to preserving the unique ecological, scenic, recreation and cultural values that qualified the stream. One of the identified streams, Wambaw Creek, is inside a wilderness area and already enjoys substantial protection. The full course of another, Wabdoo Creek, is largely outside the forest and therefore outside forest managers’ ability to protected the associated values.
For purposes of planning additional recreation opportunities, planners have divided the forest into four zones that each present unique recreational potential. Somewhat simplified, that division is a coastal zone that with salt water access and rich cultural assets, two eastern zones along the Santee River (one rich with wilderness and one with roads offering scenic drive potential), and one western zone along the Wando with the most convenient access from the Charleston urban area.
The Wando zone contains a Wildlife Management Area where hunting takes place and there is already some history of conflict between hunting and non-hunting users. The prospect of additional non-hunting activity (e.g., with expanded horse and hiking trails) generated the most intense comments by attendees. This is a very difficult issue for forest managers for several reasons. They are mandated to be non-political, but hunting regulation in South Carolina is, in fact, very political. Also, there are quite a few agencies involved besides just the U.S. Forest Service: U.S. Fish and Wildlife manages the WMA, SC DNR manages hunting, and local law enforcement has jurisdiction. Many, if not all, of those agencies have mixed use mandates, so they need to accommodate the conflicting uses. I and several other attendees argued that managers from all of those agencies simply must sit down together to work out a coordinated plan for managing and minimizing the conflict. Perhaps the plan could, at least, contain additional public education and more transparent coordination of law enforcement.
Having identified potential wilderness additions, wild and scenic river designations, and recreational expansions, planners are now tasked with analyzing the benefits, costs, and conflicts. Those of us who love the forest should be glad that the forest planners and managers are willing and able navigate such complex problems that have no simple, obvious solutions. It will be very interesting to see what they propose at subsequent public meetings.
Carl W. Cole, Master Naturalist
August 28, 2014