June 2008 // Volume 46 // Number 3 // Ideas at Work // 3IAW4

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Extension Efforts Enhance Lowcountry South Carolina Conservation Forestry

Conservation forestry involves the use of low-cost forest management practices to enhance biodiversity. It must be accomplished at the landscape level (over large areas of land). We report on a program to encourage conservation forestry on South Carolina's coastal plain. Extension foresters developed three major conservation forestry strategies to encourage conversion to longleaf pine, prescribed fire, and better bottomland hardwood management. Forest owners expect financial returns, so each strategy was analyzed for financial results; all three showed favorable returns. Extension foresters set up demonstration areas and used workshops to educate natural resource professionals and forest owners on these practices.

Thomas J. Straka
Professor of Forestry and Natural Resources

Robert M. Franklin
Senior Extension Agent

Clemson University

Conservation forestry is designed to conserve overall biodiversity while using low-cost practices that allow forest owners with little capital investment to conserve their lands while receiving a cash flow to cover property taxes and management costs. Conservation forestry practices also benefit wildlife, native plants, and retain natural esthetics of land. These practices are often accomplished through a set of well-established principles developed by Lindenmayer and Franklin (2002). These principles are based on conservation biology from the landscape perspective, which includes landscape connectivity, landscape heterogeneity, ensuring stand structural complexity, integrity of aquatic ecosystems, risk spreading via conservation strategies at different scales, and use of natural disturbance patterns as a model for silviculture.

To be truly effective, these conservation practices should be accomplished on the landscape level. Because diversity, spacing, and conservation of key areas are needed, not only existing protected lands are considered, but also the matrix of lands that surround these already key areas (Lindenmayer & Franklin, 2002). Existing protected lands (like a national forest or wildlife refuge) might be surrounded by key tracts and lands. These connecting pieces of land, preserved by easement or purchase, serve as important conduits between reserves, helping to ensure that existing reserves do not become islands of biodiversity.

Most forestry Extension efforts tend to be focused on individual forest owners or organizations. Conservation forestry occurs at the landscape level and on lands that are not necessarily intended for conservator purposes. Sustainable forest management in this approach is defined in terms of conservation of biodiversity. Thus, the level of focus differentiates this Extension program from more traditional ones. Dissemination of information to forest owners still occurs, but the objective is to accomplish goals by coordinating activities to enhance overall biodiversity. Much of traditional forestry Extension activity results in accomplishments at the forest tract level (micro-level), while conservation forestry Extension activity produces results at the landscape level (macro-level).

Lowcountry Forest Conservation Project

The Lowcountry Conservation Project is a group-coordinated effort to help protect important habitant and natural systems. The focus of the project is to sustain the unique biodiversity and the many rare and special plants and animals of the Lowcountry (coastal plain) of South Carolina. The area's forests are globally significant because they contain remnant longleaf pine forests that support one of the richest plant communities known in the world. There are also undisturbed wetland forests and isolated wetlands such as Carolina Bays, which are essential habitat for many birds and water-loving animals.

The project approach combines protection of critical core sites, promotion of urban development patterns that minimize fragmentation, implementation of ecologically compatible forestry practices among private landowners, and restoration and maintenance of two key ecological processes--fire and hydrology. Critical sites are protected through easements or outright land purchases. Urban sprawl is addressed by promoting smart growth in three key urban areas (Hilton Head/Beaufort, Myrtle Beach, and Charleston) that attempts to reduce forest fragmentation.

If small forest owners in the Lowcountry adopted conservation forestry practices, their lands would become part of this protected area. It was the role of the Clemson University Extension service to encourage conservation forestry adoption of specific forestry practices by small forest owners. Information on conservation forestry must include a financial analysis of these alternatives to maintain interest of private forest owners. Cost-effective forestry practices tend to diffuse from landowner to landowner (Doolittle & Straka, 1987).

Three Financial Examples

Forest owners converting to these new conservation practices expect some sort of profit to be involved, but not necessarily the same as for intensive forest management, because the difference might be made up in other ways, such as increased aesthetics, resale value, and increased wildlife values associated with a more healthy and diverse woodland. We report on financial analyses of the three most common forestry practices used on the project: conversion of loblolly plantation to uneven-aged longleaf sawtimber, the increased and multiple season use of prescribed fire, and bottomland hardwood management. Straka (2007) provides a detailed explanation of the financial analyses. All three practices would add significant acreages to the protected land base.

Longleaf Pine Conservation and Restoration

Longleaf pine conservation and restoration is critically important. It now occupies only 3% of its native range of 90 million acres (Noss, 1988). We developed a simple system where loblolly pine plantations can be converted to an uneven-aged longleaf forest in a few cutting cycles without having to bulldoze existing trees or perform a clearcut harvest. A mosaic pattern of longleaf pine is developed across the stand, and secondary products like pine straw were included. Longleaf pine conversion was shown to produce commercially competitive returns.

Use of Prescribed Fire

A second conservation forestry practice is the use of prescribed fire, a very important part of the southern coastal plain's overall forest health (Barnett, 1999). Fire is crucial for fall germination of longleaf pine seed and at seedling grass stage. These natural fires are no longer allowed to burn freely, and people must supplement this process with prescribed fire for the ecosystem to operate properly. Prescribed fire can accomplish what frequent natural fires once did: hazard reduction, hardwood control, site preparation, wildlife habitat improvement, disease control, forage production, and improving accessibility and appearance (Landers, Van Lear, & Boyer, 1995).

The project attempted to achieve its prescribed fire goal by working through the newly created South Carolina Prescribed Fire Council, a group formed to promote the proper use of prescribed fire and to support legislation that allows the continued use of prescribed fire in forestry practice. Prescribed fire is the cheapest management tool a landowner has to manage his lands (Smidt, Dubose, & Folegatti, 2005) and serves to improve wildlife habitat, aesthetics, control of insects and disease, management of competing vegetation, and stand access, while reducing hazardous fuels. This produces positive economic impacts (Wade, Lunsford, & Dixon, 1989), and the project provided a financial analysis showing how reasonable these costs could be for a landowner who uses his own equipment and labor.

Bottomland Hardwood Management

A third conservation forestry strategy was bottomland hardwood management practices. Southern bottomland hardwood forests make up over 32 million acres of forestland in river bottoms, minor stream bottoms, and swamps from Virginia to east Texas (McKnight & Johnson, 1980) and are considered endangered by the Southern Forest Resource Assessment (Wear & Greis, 2001). Southeastern bottomland hardwood forests are important for water quality, flood control, nutrient cycling, and wildlife habitat, and support some of North America's most diverse plant and animal communities (Kellison & Young, 1997). Clearcutting is the most common harvesting system used in bottomland hardwood in South Carolina. An alternative is the reserve growing stock or crop tree management practiced by the Anderson-Tully Lumber Corporation in the bottomland forests of the Mississippi River (Conner, 2006). The economic basis of the system and its financial advantages were the third analysis present to forest owners.


The project directly protected over 94,000 acres of critical lands via purchase and conservation easements to allow for continued ecologically sustainable management. Project participation led to establishment of the South Carolina Prescribed Fire Council. Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service's main contribution was development of seven demonstration areas with a total of 9,000 acres designed to show the conservation forestry concepts discussed above.

These demonstration areas were used as the basis of short courses. Thus far, 487 natural resource professionals who manage more than 4.2 million acres have been trained in conservation forestry practices via 13 workshops. Also, 385 forest owners who control over 225,000 acres have attended one of the 14 workshops. Seventy-nine forest owners are implementing conservation forestry management plans on about 135,000 acres of forestland. They have been recognized by the American Forest Foundations "Conservation Forestry in Action" sign program. Conservation forestry cost-share is being implemented on 18 properties totaling 875 acres of cost-share practices.

Three of the workshops included a written evaluation. The results of these evaluations give some insight into program effectiveness. Average attendance was 51 forest owners who owned about 3,300 acres each. Participants estimated future savings (due to more cost-effective practices) of about $62,000 and future increased earning of about $250,000 per workshop. Nearly 90% of participants rated the program as "Good" or "Excellent," and 86% indicated they would change forest management practices. As a result of the program, knowledge level of forest management practices increased an average of 56% over pre-program levels.

What this small part of the program accomplished was to answer the question that many potential forest owner participants first ask, "Will it pay?" Three viable management alternatives were disseminated to forest owners via demonstration and workshops. Forest owners did adopt the alternatives, and many of these were owners of critical lands in terms of protecting biodiversity. The approach was proved successful in South Carolina's Lowcountry and will be useful in many parts of the world where public ownership of forestlands will never be sufficient to manage for biological diversity. Where public lands exist, this methodology can be used as a catalyst to develop the matrix of private and public holdings necessary to sustain biodiversity. The project has a Web site <http://www.sclfcp.org> that includes more detail on this success story.


Barnett, J. P. (1999). Longleaf pine ecosystem restoration: the role of fire. Journal of Sustainable Forestry, 9, 89-96.

Conner, W. H. (2006). Management of Lowcountry bottomland hardwoods using the crop tree management system (For. Leafl. 33). Clemson, SC: Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service.

Doolittle, M. L., & Straka, T. J. (1987). Regeneration following harvest on nonindustrial pine sites in the South: A diffusion of innovations perspective. Southern Journal of Applied Forestry, 11, 37-41.

Landers, J. L., Van Lear, D. H., & Boyer, W. D. (1995). The longleaf pine forests of the Southeast: requiem or renaissance. Journal of Forestry, 93, 39-44.

Kellison, R. C., & Young, M. J. (1997). The bottomland hardwood forest of southern United States. Forest Ecology and Management, 90, 101-115.

Lindenmayer, D. B., & Franklin, J. B. (2002). Conserving forest biodiversity. Washington, DC: Island Press.

McKnight, J. S., & Johnson, R. L. (1980). Hardwood management in southern bottomlands. Forest Farmer, 39, 31-39.

Noss, R. F. (1988). The longleaf pine landscape of he Southeast: almost gone and forgotten. Endangered Species Update, 5, 1-8.

Smidt, M., Dubois, M. R., & Folegatti B. (2005). Costs and cost trends for forestry practices in the South. Forest Landowner, 65, 25-31.

Straka, T. J. (2007). Economic analysis of conservation forestry practices applicable to the South Carolina Lowcountry (For. Leafl. 36). Clemson, SC: Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service.

Wade, D. D., Lunsford, J. D., & Dixon, M. J. (1989). A guide for prescribed fire in southern forests (Tech. Publ. R8-TP 11). Atlanta, GA: Southern Region USDA Forest Service.

Wear D. N., & Greis, J. G. (Eds). (2002). Southern forest resource assessment. USDA Forest Service (Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS-53). Asheville, NC: USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station.