Francis Marion Ecological Sustainability Forum by Carl W. Cole

Earlier this month, I spent a day at the SeweeCenter attending an Ecological Sustainability Forum hosted by the FrancisMarionNational   Forest in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and the Coastal Conservation League.  This year, the FrancisMarionNational Forest began a multiyear effort to develop a new forest plan, which is comparable to city and county land use plans.  The new plan, which will replace one completed in 1996, is due to be completed in 2016.  A new 2012 Forest Planning Rule defines a process that begins with assessment (the current effort), identifies needs for change, reviews and revises a draft plan, then implements and monitors the plan.  The planning rule also mandates public involvement and specifically requires sustainability management; hence, this forum.

Sustainability Management

By law, the Forest Service is responsible for mixed use of the forest, so sustainability management as used by the Forest Service targets the intersection of social, economic, and ecological sustainability.   Much of the forum consisted of defining ecological sustainability, ecological integrity, and ecosystems, of identifying the diverse ecosystems present in the forest, and presenting draft assessments of current conditions.   A fundamental assumption of the Forest Service planners is that ecological integrity ensures sustainability, so it seems worthwhile to quote their definition of ecological integrity:

“Ecological Integrity (Planning) refers to the quality of an ecosystem when its dominant ecological characteristics (for example, composition, structure, function, connectivity, and species composition and diversity) occur within the natural range of variation and can withstand and recover from most perturbation imposed by natural environmental dynamics or human influence.”

That perspective drives much of the assessment effort: to assess ecological integrity, one must identify the ecosystems present, determine their composition and natural variation, identify critical characteristics that are essential to maintaining integrity, and identify threats.  Coarse filter assessments address entire ecosystems, while fine filter assessments examine critical and endangered species. To do those assessments, some remarkable people are using some remarkable science and technology.

Science and Technology

All of the presentations were filled with information and insights but I was especially impressed by two of them.   Joan L. Walker, from the USFS Southern Research Station at Clemson, began with the concept of ecological integrity and illustrated models – both conceptual and quantitative – with breathtaking potential for teasing ecosystem insights from available data.  After her presentation, the forum’s moderator quipped that any participant who didn’t already have a science merit badge, now qualified for one.   My thought is that, as folks interested in the welfare of the forest, we should be encouraged that such an intellect is working on understanding it.

Later presenters covered ecological systems modeling by which grid data from various sources is combined with field observations to approximate the extents of various ecosystems.  Since 2007, SCDNR has been accumulating high-resolution LiDAR data for much of the state, including all of the FrancisMarionForest.  LiDAR, an airborne laser ranging system, produces data with a resolution as fine as a 1.5 meter grid that enables identifying 2 foot contours, hydrologic features, and vegetation types.

In addition to creating maps of the 15 or so ecosystems present in the forest [85% is Wet Pine Savanna and Flatwoods, Non-riverineSwamp and WetHardwoodForest, and Upland Longleaf Pine Woodland], they’ve made some striking observations enabled by the high-resolution data.  Rather than a half dozen Carolina Bays in the Francis Marion, there are dozens.  Rather than dozens of tar kilns, there are hundreds.  A key question for forest managers has been not only the current extent of Longleaf Pine but the potential extent.  The distribution of tar kilns provides insight into the historic extent of Longleaf Pine and perhaps its current potential.

Another key question for forest managers may well be where there are protectable buffer areas into which ecosystems may retreat from inundation caused by inevitable global sea level rise.  The ecosystem maps will be essential to any such management effort.


Over the rest of this year, the Forest Service will complete the assessment report and identify “need for change” in the current forest plan, before publishing a draft plan in 2014.  Concurrently, they’ll reach out to the community with resource and use specific meetings, possible electronic collaboration, and finding ways to make the plan revision more meaningful to minority, low-income, and youth communities.

The forum also enabled a different type of connections.  The people in attendance represented a variety of private organizations and government agencies.  Any trip to the SeweeCenter is an excuse to visit with my Master Naturalist classmate Michelle Wrenn.   Colette Degarady, whom many of us know from the local Nature Conservancy office, gave a presentation on the Sewee Longleaf Conservation Cooperative (and, to my delight, jumped up to serve as informal tech support whenever a presenter seemed lost with audio visual equipment).  During the climate change breakout session, Lori Barrow from the South Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (SALCC) was helping the Forest Service presenters.  After the session, I asked Lori to add me to SALCC’s mailing list and recently attended their monthly web forum.  SALCC is preparing a Conservation Blueprint, has a “DraftState of the South Atlantic” document, and is also doing some great mapping.  I’ll plan to do a separate blog entry about the SALCC.

Additional Reading

Francis Marion and SumterNational Forests – Planning

SCDNR LiDAR and Related Data Products

Sewee Longleaf Conservation Cooperative

South Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative