Congaree National Park
Appalled by this rampant environmental destruction, the people of the United States pleaded for the protection of their dwindling forests and their resources. Their efforts were rewarded with the passage of the Weeks Law in 1911, which authorized the acquisition of this and other private lands and the creation of national forests in the Eastern United States. From the beginning, as it still is today, the primary purpose of the Forest Service has been to restore the forest canopy, protect the watershed, and maintain and enrich the ecological diversity of all that you see before you.
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Although it’s a great sign, I’m skeptical. If the managers of a national forest were asked to state in one sentence their primary purpose, would they use the words “restore,” “protect,” or “enrich”? I’m guessing they would say something about a “management plan,” and frequently that management plan includes logging.
There are some small areas in our national forests, usually less than ten percent, which have been protected from logging they are the designated wilderness areas. One of these, Citco Creek Wilderness, is where I was headed. As the sign at the overlook states, most of the area surrounding this wilderness was logged, but the massive fires resulting from all the logging slash destroyed the railway used for logging, and as a result a few patches of original forest escaped destruction. I would hike through one of those patches the ravine surrounding Falls Branch.
It was only eight o’clock in the morning, but already it was blisteringly hot. I locked my truck and stepped off the asphalt into the cool shade of the forest. This was a summer-morning forest with the high buzzing sound of the cicadas in the trees and the low buzzing sound of the bumblebees on the white snakeroot flowers. I was surprised to see that the largest trees were buckeyes. No doubt these bumblebees, or their kin, gathered nectar from the yellow flowers of the buckeyes earlier that summer. In this forest, I was seeing more bumblebees and more wildflowers than in other forests that time of year. I wondered if the early blooming buckeye trees gave the bee colonies a good early start. Then later, when the wildflowers bloom, there would be plenty of pollinators, and therefore more seeds, and more wild-flowers the next year.
The buckeye is a species I don’t get to see very often, and I had never before seen it as the dominant tree in a canopy. The buckeye has leaflets attached to a central point on a petiole like fat green fingers attached at the palm. The fruit is a large nut, and inside the husk is a very large, shiny, brown seed with a tan oval marking on it. When part of the husk is removed, the seed is supposed to resemble the eye of a male whitetail deer, hence the name “buckeye.” Like human babies, sometimes these seeds come in twos or threes, but most often there is just one. Native people in North America ate the seeds after roasting, peeling, soaking, boiling, and mashing them.
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The range of yellow buckeyes is quite small. They are trees of the Appalachian hills, but they don’t go very far north (just barely into Pennsylvania) or very far south (just barely into Georgia). I was pleased to be in the midst of them. The first place I ever saw natural, unplanted buckeye trees was in West Virginia. I was hiking through a forest and the large nuts on the ground alerted me to their presence. When I inquired about the West Virginia trees a number of years later, I learned that the hillside where I saw them had been logged. I asked the owner about the yellow buckeyes, if they had been logged out too, but he wasn’t even sure what they looked like. “They’re not a very big tree, are they?” he asked.
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