Forests contribute to South Carolina’s natural beauty, economy, and public health. This year, there is a new project to keep them healthy. (Photos by Danielle Cahn)

A national partnership is creating opportunities for local organizations to restore South Carolina’s Piedmont forests, improve water quality and collaborate in new ways.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Feb. 23 it will invest more than $1.5 million toward restoration efforts in the Upstate watershed.

The Piedmont forest was targeted because of the positive effect the restoration could have on the environment and public life.

“Forests are one of the top agricultural and natural resource elements here in the state of South Carolina,” said Darvis Jordan, the partnerships coordinator for the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Forest management is an integral part of sustaining that valuable resource.

Forestry supports more than 100,000 jobs in the state, according to a report by the Darla Moore School of Business at USC and the S.C. Forestry Commission.  The industry is expected to continue growing over the next decade.

But past forest management practices have contributed to decreased water quality in forested areas.

Silt, decay, erosion and toxic chemicals are what officials hope to avoid.

County soil, water and conservation partners as well as state agencies will work together under the grant.

The project will give local partners the opportunity to develop better practices, Jordan said.

“In South Carolina, there are excellent opportunities for us to not only continue to be a model of what healthy forest lands look like, and what recovering forest land looks like,” Jordan said. “But also to overcome some of the challenges that may have impacted the state because of past forest practices or past business forest practices that at one point left a negative impact.”

The S.C. Forestry Commission, a partner on the project, hopes the funding will help promote more consistent forest management practices on private lands as well.

More than 80% of S.C. forestland is privately owned. So reaching landowners is important to maintaining the Piedmont’s environment.

“If, through this partnership, we can get people to manage their forest land more actively, then that’s a win-win for this initiative for water quality for everybody downstream as well as for the landowners themselves,” said Russell Hubright, forest management chief for the Forestry Commission.

Improving water quality is a key focus.

A lack of tree cover can increase erosion and introduce sediment and pollutants. Decaying trees also can introduce harmful substances to the water supply.

There are other reasons to maintain forests.

A healthy forest is more profitable to its owners.

“One of the best ways to get people to keep land in forests is to encourage them to cut the trees,” Hubright said. “So that sounds kind of odd, right? But if people are making money off of the trees every once in a while, … they’re more likely to keep the land … and manage their timber.”

The project is still in an early stage. Local partners are being informed about what the scope of the project will be.

Hubright is optimistic that the partnerships will allow them to better serve the community.

“(The partners) bring various levels of expertise,” Hubright said. “So I think that’s one of the values of this kind of an initiative. It gets us all to sit down literally, you know, at the table and talk about how we can work together.”

Learn more about what forest management does for you!