The Santee Experimental Forest at 75

SRS researcher Devendra Amatya explains hydrological research at the Santee. Photo by Wade Spees.

On a cool spring day deep in the forest a short drive away from Charleston, South Carolina, more than 100 people showed up to celebrate 75 years of continual research at the  Forest Service Santee Experimental Forest (the Santee), one of 19 experimental forests maintained by the Southern Research Station (SRS).

Established in 1937, the 6,100-acre outdoor laboratory was carved out of the Francis Marion National Forest, at that time just a year old, the land for the Santee set aside by Chief Forester C.E. Rachford to make permanently available for forest research and demonstration of its results. “Santee researchers have quietly built on Rachford’s words ever since. Most people living in Charleston don’t know about the experimental forest or the work we do and how it impacts them,” said Carl Trettin, team leader for the SRS Center for Forested Wetlands located on the Santee.

Data collections on weather, water, soil, trees, fire and wildlife have been ongoing at the Santee. It is the only experimental forest out of 80 across the country located in the Atlantic coastal plain. While people come and go and techniques change over time, the Santee continues to provide a place for researchers to conduct long-term studies and build on one anothers work.     

Researchers started out building weirs on Santee watersheds for studies on runoff, precipitation, and surface water in support of logging operations. Today those same watershed guaging stations are used to look at the impacts of urbanization on water quality. “In 2005, the data collected from the Santee on water quality was used in a study on the expansion of the Charleston Harbor,” Trettin said. “This information just did not exist anywhere else.”    

The fire research conducted at the Santee provided much of the basis for prescribed burning now used in the Coastal Plain. “When people first thought of fire and fire studies they looked to the Western states to find information,” said Patricia Layton, who directs the School of Agriculture, Forestry and Environmental Science at Clemson University.  “However, some of the first studies on prescribed fire were conducted right here at the Santee,” she said. “This is a big deal. This research is very important to how fire is used in coastal areas.” 

In addition to studies on fire and water Santee researchers have conducted important studies on wildlife. Hurricane Hugo struck the Santee in 1989, damaging more than 80 percent of its trees. The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker was severely impacted by this loss. After Hugo struck, of 477 groups of red-cockaded woodpecker groups counted on the Santee, an estimated 65 percent of the birds were dead or missing, with almost no trees left for them to nest in. Though the birds will excavate their nesting and roosting cavities in most pines, they prefer old longleaf pines. They’re also the only North American woodpeckers that dig their cavities into live trees, a process that can take up to 12 years to complete. Fortunately, scientists at North Carolina State University had just developed artificial cavities for the woodpeckers just as Hugo struck. Scientists and foresters quickly worked together installing artificial cavities in trees remaining on the Santee. By 1994, woodpecker populations were back to 75 percent before the hurricane.

Read more about hurricanes and red-cockaded woodpeckers.

Read more about the history of the Santee Experimental Forest.

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