Chuck Wechsler shook his head in dismay during a visit last winter to the patch of woodlands he bought as a hunting retreat about five years ago.
The forest that once surrounded his land was gone. Between early December and February, loggers cleared hundreds of acres nearby, leaving his 44 acres as one of the few wooded spots left along a dirt road in rural Orangeburg County.
“I thought I had this secluded little gem amidst a huge forest,’’ Wechsler said. “I’m a deer hunter but a nature lover. I thought, ‘Boy, what an idyllic situation.’ ”
“To have this kind of denuding of the forest, to have it this extensive and just taken all the way, is pretty disheartening.’’
The forest loss Wechsler is dealing with is part of a land-use change that has mowed down woodlands across the upper Edisto River Basin between Aiken and Columbia.
Since 2012, loggers have cut about 6,000 acres of forests to make room for row-crop farms. The amount of land cleared near the South Fork of the Edisto River is comparable in size to some of South Carolina’s largest state parks and five times more than the total acreage at nearby Aiken State Park.
The clearing is a concern to some local residents and environmentalists, who say it could drive away wildlife, damage wetlands and pollute the South Fork, as well as groundwater.
Aerial imagery indicates some of the 6,000 acres that were cleared had pines planted specifically for harvest, and those types of woodlands don’t attract a diversity of animals. Real estate agent Jason Burbage, whose company sold land for industrial-scale crop farms in Aiken County, said much of the property was pine plantations.
But some of the land appeared to have both pines and hardwoods, according to historic imagery from Google Earth. Mixed forests are considered good habitat for a variety of species.
Wechsler’s 44 acres are filled with oaks and pines. Deer, wild turkeys, bobcats and hogs have roamed the property since he bought it.
“Southeastern forests are some of the most biodiverse hot spots in the world,’ said David DeGennaro, who specializes in agricultural issues for the National Wildlife Federation. “Losing that habitat has ramifications throughout the ecological food chain.’’
Aside from threats to wildlife, converting forested property for agriculture can cause loose soil to run into rivers, and it can result in groundwater pollution if farmers aren’t careful.
So far, that hasn’t been detected, but federal scientists are looking for problems.
Many of the trees in the Aiken-Barnwell area grow in sandy, well-draining soil that farmers now are enriching with fertilizers to grow vegetables. Potentially life-threatening nitrate, released by fertilizer, can move quickly through the porous earth, get into groundwater and expose people who drink from wells. One particular hazard is to young children, who can develop a potentially fatal ailment known as blue baby syndrome.
“If you clear 5,000 acres and replace that with herbaceous grass or corn — which requires lots of nutrients — and you irrigate and you add (fertilizer), you have the potential for nitrate to leave the root zone and get into the water table,’’ said Jim Landmeyer, a groundwater expert with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Clearing trees might not suit adjoining landowners, but it’s legal — unless the work hurts wetlands.
Already, state environmental regulators have investigated one large farm tract, overseen by the Woody agribusiness group from New Mexico and Texas. Sediment from cleared land washed into a creek late last year, turning the small stream khaki green, according to testimony at a legislative hearing earlier this year. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control confirmed “concerns with sediment and erosion control,’’ the agency said in an email.
Meanwhile, the S.C. Forestry Commission has found potential problems with work done on land that was cleared next to Wechsler’s property. Records show the land in question was owned by RRR Farms, a South Carolina company.
The Forestry Commission found evidence last year that a logging road was upgraded in possible violation of federal standards. Company officials acknowledge they did some clearing, but declined further comment. After the clearing, RRR sold about 300 acres of the 872 acres to FPI Properties Inc., of Colorado, a company that invests in farm land. The land is adjacent to a new irrigation intake pipe in Dean Swamp Creek.
FPI officials said they generally do not buy land unless it is cleared and ready for farming.
Potatoes and corn
The biggest farm in the Springfield-Windsor area is Walther Farms’ Augusta tract. It’s a 3,700-acre site near Windsor in Aiken County where about 1,800 acres were cleared so the company could plant its first industrial-scale potato farm in South Carolina about three years ago, according to aerial imagery reviewed by The State newspaper.
Since Walther’s arrival in 2013, the Michigan corporation and the Woody agribusiness group have acquired more land and cleared another 2,000 acres of forest, according to aerial imagery and county property records. The Woodys grew corn on part of a 1,900-acre tract last summer near Windsor. The Woodys began buying land in the area about two years ago.
Walther, which has also established a potato farm on 1,500 acres at the Barnwell-Aiken county line, most recently sheared vegetation from about 200 acres to expand that farm.
Jeremy Walther, the potato corporation’s representative in Aiken County, said his company follows the law and wise conservation practices to prevent soil from running off his company’s farms. The State newspaper found no record of environmental violations from Walther Farms.
Transforming forested land to vegetable farms is only returning the property to a traditional use, he said.
Some longtime residents “can recall when that was all farmed in cotton and peanuts, back decades ago,’’ Walther said.
Converting forested land to agricultural land is part of a national trend noted in 2015 by researchers at the University of Wisconsin. The 2015 study found that the amount of cropland grew in the United States by about 3 million acres from 2008-12. Much of that came from the conversion of prairie in the Midwest and Great Plains as the government sought crops for ethanol.
But another 200,000 acres of eastern forests had been cut and turned into farm fields, the study said. Of that, South Carolina experienced an increase of about 3,000 acres of farmland.
The S.C. Forestry Commission says the conversion in South Carolina is not substantial, but state forester Gene Kodama said, “You are seeing some of these areas going back into agriculture.’’ Kodama said more favorable prices for vegetables may have driven some of the land use changes. Real estate agent Burbage said prices today are high for hardwood trees, as well.
About 13 million acres of South Carolina’s nearly 20 million acres are covered in forest. South Carolina has about 4.8 million acres of agricultural land, federal statistics show.
Wechsler, originally from the Midwest, began to question whether the forests around his land were doomed when he noticed water pouring onto the property in December.
Someone had diverted a creek just up from his hunting shack, he said. A walk through the area in December revealed a fresh deposit of mud and clay in Dean Swamp Creek.
Wechsler said he thinks the creek was diverted so loggers could reach valuable timber. Unfortunately, his land was in the path of the water, he said. During a visit to his property Dec. 7, it was easy to hear the sound of chainsaws in the distance as Wechsler reflected on the flooding.
“Rerouting the creek allows them to get the big tree cutting machines into the area and cut all the timber,’’ he said .
The creek was restored after he reported the issue to state and federal authorities. A federal agency launched an investigation, but has said little about the status of the probe.
“This is an active enforcement case so there’s not much I can tell you about it,’’ said Glenn Jeffries, a spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers. “If someone wants to divert a jurisdictional stream with fill, then yes, they need a ... permit.’’
Wechsler said he’s learned a lot from the experience in Orangeburg County – and he’s trying to decide whether he’ll sell his little tract because the area has changed so much.
“I’m frustrated more than anything else,’’ Wechsler said. “I’m just a small landowner and I can’t fight it. I have to accept it or go elsewhere.’’
Tuesday: Some residents and researchers worry about a drop in groundwater last summer near the mega-farms
Wednesday: The river flow of the Edisto River dropped last summer near the mega-farms
Thursday: How the mega-farms were able to buy land
Previously published at thestate.com