RED HILL, S.C. - For Steve Wilhelm and Beth LeMaster, the black of burned stumps and logs and the charred bark of tall pines are signs of a forest on the road back to ecological health.
The U.S. Forest Service rangers say fire, applied regularly in small, low-intensity doses, can be the forest's best friend, a check against the dangerous buildup of tinder-dry fuels that can feed an uncontrollable blaze.
Better to burn now, creating a healthier habitat for trees, deer, turkey and quail, than risk a wildfire later. And burning more of the Sumter National Forest, much of which lies in Edgefield and McCormick counties, is exactly what the Forest Service aims to do, torching as much as 36,700 acres in a plan enacted in January and bitterly opposed by environmentalists.
It also plans to set burns with state foresters on private land and in state parks and to link up with the Army Corps of Engineers near the shoreline of Lake Thurmond, raising the likelihood that lakefront homeowners will have a higher exposure to smoke and ash.
Doubling the smoke also will have an impact on the thousands of mountain bikers, hunters, equestrians, campers, fishers, bird watchers and hikers, some of whom don't seem to mind.
Paul Farrow, of Martinez, the president of the Augusta-area chapter of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association, said a shot of smoke is a fair trade for a chance to see a deer and the dip and roll of the land.
"Who wants to walk or ride through a forest where all you can see is four feet in front of you?" said Mr. Farrow, 48, an engineer at Savannah River Site. "You get a chance to see wildlife. If it was a wall of green, you couldn't see a thing."
More smoke is also in the offing for the increasing number of refugees from around Augusta and Aiken who are buying up private timber tracts and farmland that honeycomb Sumter's Long Cane Ranger District, which includes the western third of Edgefield County and most of McCormick County.
Only 28 percent of its 424,263 acres is federally owned.
"People like to get out here in that country. They want to get away from it all," said David Satcher, of Edgefield, a real estate agent for Atlantic Coast Properties, who says he is seeing more sales from Richmond, Columbia and Aiken counties. "A lot of people like to have that national forest as a neighbor. They just feel like there'll be that many less people moving in on them down the road."
Fighting fire with fire is not a new notion in Southern forests.
"Fire is a natural phenomenon," said Mrs. LeMaster, the chief ranger of the Long Cane district. Whether caused by lightning or by man, fires have long thinned the forest.
"Forest ecosystems throughout the South have been created by fire," said David Van Lear, a Clemson University professor and one of the nation's leading fire ecologists. "Fire was the predominant ecological process that shaped the Southern landscape."
He said American Indians in the South regularly burned the forest to clear farmland, create tastier forage for deer and other game, control insects and other pests and cut lanes of travel that also made it difficult for an enemy to creep up on a village.
Not so, argues environmental attorney Steve Novak of WildLaw, an Alabama nonprofit organization that drew up a lengthy appeal of the Sumter plan on behalf of the Sierra Club and other organizations. In the wet forests of the South, fire was a relatively infrequent visitor.
"We disagree strongly with the notion that the Cherokee were firebugs," he said.
In their appeal, environmentalists say the increased use of controlled burns on Sumter's three widely scattered South Carolina districts is based on faulty science. It is also a wrong-headed application of a Western cure for an Eastern forest, they say.
Under the banner of improving the health of the forest, prescribed burns and tree thinning are just a clever cover for what the agency is really all about - logging, environmentalists contend.
Nevertheless, the Forest Service is moving ahead.
What Mrs. LeMaster and other foresters want is a forest of fewer trees spaced by open ground - a return to the parklike mix of grasslands and tall trunks encountered by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s and detailed by wandering 18th-century botanist John Bartram and his son William.
As she checks the condition of a 300-acre stand burned by one of Mr. Wilhelm's crews in April, Mrs. LeMaster notes that it burned hotter and higher than ideal, charring bark about 20 feet above the ground while killing younger loblolly pines, brush, sweet gums and red oak. It also blackened the forest floor, but didn't roast tree roots or kill the seeds and nutrients embedded in the soil.
Mrs. LeMaster and Mr. Wilhelm seem satisfied with the success of this burn and the new green that's bursting out of the black.
"We purposely don't want it to burn everything," Mr. Wilhelm said. "When it's hot and dry, everything will burn and you just have bare dirt, and that soil moves whether it's farming or fire. That's your future forest and it's not what we want."
In 2002, 3,567 wildfires in South Carolina burned 30,943 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. In Georgia, 7,179 wildfires burned 159,951 acres. In contrast, there were fewer wildfires in Colorado that year, 3,072, but they burned 915,291 acres.
Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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