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Governor wants SC to plant 3 million pine trees to fight flooding. Will it work?

Sammy Fretwell
·6 min read

Gov. Henry McMaster and his floodwater commission are touting an effort to plant more than 3 million pine trees they hope will soak up stormwater as more intense rainfall drenches South Carolina and increases flooding.

Some environmentalists and scientists who follow forestry and development issues say the initiative isn’t a bad idea, but the state also needs bolder efforts to address flooding, including development controls and efforts to slow the release of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

The initiative, dubbed “PowerPlantSC,’’ is attempting to plant loblolly pine tree seeds across the state as part of Earth Day.

Thousands of packets of seeds were being distributed to landowners, students, community groups and businesses in an effort to plant them by the end of Thursday, an effort state officials said is a first nationally. Seeds were to be put on both public and private land, an official said.

Tom Mullikin, a former hazardous waste industry lobbyist who now chairs the SC Floodwater Commission, is heading the effort.

“Many regions across the Palmetto State – not only our coastlines, but equally vulnerable areas hundreds of miles inland – have frequently experienced severe flooding stemming from record-heavy rainstorms, hurricanes, and tides, all of which threaten our state’s citizens, our property, and our way of life,’’ a Floodwater Commission statement said.

“The Floodwater Commission is organizing this historic planting event as a platform to bring attention to this issue of flooding and its causes while also offering solutions for easing its impact.’’

During a ceremony Thursday on the grounds of the governor’s mansion, McMaster and Mullikin planted a small live oak tree. The event drew a large and enthusiastic crowd of politicians, state agency heads and business people.

“Today, we are celebrating our environment,’’ McMaster said.

University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen, Clemson University President Jim Clements and Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation, including Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Jeff Duncan, have previously spoken in favor of the mass tree planting.

Loblollies to be planted across the state are thirsty pines that could help absorb stormwater while soaking up carbon that contributes to climate change, Mullikin and supporters of the effort said. These pines are among the most common trees in South Carolina and anchor the state’s multi-billion dollar forest products industry.

The S.C. Forestry Commission is providing the more than 3 million loblolly pine seeds from its seed repository, spokesman Doug Wood said. They were packaged by inmates from the S.C. Department of Corrections. The initiative cost less than $50,000, not including the value of the seeds from the Forestry Commission, Mullikin said. The cost of the seeds was not immediately available.

Mullikin said the trees will be put in the ground across South Carolina, in every county, but he did not have more details. A map displayed at the event showed areas around Columbia, Greenville and Charleston had substantial participation in the pine-seed planting. People who received seeds were encouraged to plant them in low-lying areas, but not all of them were able to, Mullikin said.

Despite the effort, the Dogwood Alliance and the Chattooga Conservancy say there are better ways to control flooding – such as protecting wetlands from development and not clear-cutting native forests – than simply planting loblolly pine trees.

“The long and short is that tree planting in and of itself is not a bad thing, it’s just not the best way forward,’’ said Scot Quaranda, a spokesman for the Dogwood Alliance, a North Carolina-headquartered group that also tracks forest issues in South Carolina.

South Carolina should “throw some money at restoring the state’s wetlands, change logging practices in watersheds and near rivers, and protect more land,’’ Quaranda said.

Wetlands, which soak up stormwater and provide wildlife habitat, have dwindled in South Carolina since Colonial times and development patterns indicate that they continue to disappear as the state grows.

Developers, for instance, built more than 100,000 housing units, including houses and condominiums, near the ocean from 1990 to 2017, The State reported in 2019. About one-third of the state was composed of wetlands in the 1700s, but that has dropped to well under 25 percent today, according to federal estimates.

Quaranda and Nicole Hayler, director of the Chattooga Conservancy in Oconee County, said they were disappointed the initiative focuses on a single type of tree – the loblolly – instead of relying on a diversity of trees that also soak up stormwater.

Hayler noted many of South Carolina’s diverse native forests have been chopped down and replanted with loblollies, a fast-growing species of pine tree prized by the lumber industry. Pine plantations fuel the woods-products industry, but don’t always attract a diversity of wildlife.

Loblolly shortleaf pines cover nearly 6 million acres of the state’s land, according to the Forestry Commission. Overall, forests cover about 13 million acres, or more than two-thirds, of the state’s landscape.

“Anytime you plant just a flat out monoculture like this, you are definitely not addressing what should be done, which is to plant native forests,’’ Hayler said.

Hydrologist Tom Williams, a professor emeritus from Clemson University, said research has shown that loblolly pines are good at soaking up water. One study at a site in the Francis Marion National Forest showed the water table was lowered after loblollies were planted, he said. But Williams said other common species such as red maples and sweet gums, also are thirsty trees.

Skepticism of the Floodwater Commission effort isn’t the first since McMaster formed the panel about three years ago to address how to respond to flooding, an increasing problem in many South Carolina communities as the changing climate affects more people.

The commission has advocated protecting marshes and wetlands, which many people agree is a worthy goal. But it also has been criticized for providing recommendations that only react to problems, when environmentalists say the state also needs to look for ways to help curb carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming.

South Carolina, for instance, has no overall climate plan and McMaster’s office has said the state doesn’t need one. Meanwhile, Democratic President Joe Biden held a climate summit Thursday and is pushing to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Steve Gilbert, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, agreed the effort to plant loblolly pines should help control some of the flooding that parts of South Carolina are experiencing.

But Gilbert said the state should have considered a diversity of tree species for planting, in part to provide wildlife habitat and because other trees also can absorb stormwater.

Gilbert, among a group of scientists who previously questioned some of the Floodwater Commission’s findings, said one of the biggest problems with flooding is a failure to limit development in soggy areas. State and local governments need more controls on developing in soggy, high-risk areas, he said.

“These developers are just doing what we call fill-and-build development,’’ Gilbert said. “They are building in wetlands, building in floodplains.’’