At Congaree National Park, ice storm damage lingers

jholleman@thestate.comFebruary 18, 2014 

A large limb crashed through a section of the elevated boardwalk at Congaree National Park, creating a 15-foot gap. It's one of three chunks that were taken out of the elevated section during last week's ice storm.

JOEY HOLLEMAN/JHOLLEMAN@THESTATE.COM

— The tree-snapping ice coating from last week’s storm drove home what makes Congaree National Park spectacular also makes it difficult to manage.

Big trees, or big limbs, at the park crashed into and through the boardwalk trail in about 10 places. Because much of the park is designated as federal wilderness, mechanized equipment isn’t allowed in its interior. So park superintendent Tracy Stakely and a park volunteer used ropes Tuesday afternoon trying to pry, twist or pull down a large tree section hanging by tough cellulose threads from the trunk of water oak on the edge of the boardwalk.

After about 30 minutes of exhausting work, they gave up. “We’re going to have to get a climber,” Stakely said.

By contrast, state parks and state and national forest recreation areas can get close to most of their damaged trail sections in vehicles or all-terrain vehicles. They can cut away fallen trees with chain saws. But even with those advantages, many public lands managers expect sections of their recreation areas in Charleston and Berkeley counties and around Lake Thurmond to remain closed for several days, if not longer.

Congaree National Park’s visitor center remains open, and some of the dirt trails are relatively clear. Re-opening the low section of the boardwalk, however, will have to be delayed until a tree-climbing specialist can go up with a hand saw and dislodge the snag of tree hanging dangerously over the walkway. Two tree trunks still remain stretched across the low boardwalk, but those can be sawed off relatively easily. The park plans to have the low boardwalk open by the weekend.

As for the high section of the boardwalk, it’ll be closed indefinitely. Large limbs or trunks smashed through the high boardwalk in three spots, creating long gaps over areas where water flows during wet periods such as this winter. Stakely said park maintenance officials have to determine whether it’s worth the time and expense to repair those sections because that entire portion of the boardwalk is scheduled to be replaced before the end of 2014.

Without the high boardwalk, visitors to the park can walk out and back to Weston Lake on the low section, or they can take the Sims Trail connector, which on Tuesday also was blocked by four very large tree trunks. Many of the park’s dirt trails almost certainly are blocked by fallen trees, though the staff has been focusing on the boardwalk repairs.

Chief law enforcement ranger Duane Michael and a co-worker needed eight hours to cut a small hole through the debris on the long entrance road the morning after the storm. At least the entrance road isn’t part of the wilderness area, so they could use a chain saw there.

Many of the smaller pines along the entrance road and on Old Bluff Road near the park collapsed from the weight of the ice. In the park’s interior, a visitor walking on the boardwalk can spot a big hardwood that fell or split about every hundred yards. Considering the density of the forest, however, that’s less noticeable than you might think. Except when the trunks are across, or hanging over, a trail.

The U.S. Forest Service recreation areas in the Lowcountry were hardest hit by the storm. As of Tuesday, the Honey Hill and Elmwood campgrounds, the Wambaw Cycle Trail and portions of the Palmetto Trail in Charleston and Berkeley counties were closed. Farther north, national forest officials warned that many large branches are hanging lower than normal along the FATS mountain bike circuit and the dirt forest roads in Edgefield and McCormick counties.

At the state parks, the major problem is power. Aiken, Barnwell, Redcliffe and Colleton state parks were still without power as of late Tuesday and remained closed.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources has temporarily closed the Samworth Wildlife Management Area in Georgetown County due to downed power lines and tree limbs.

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