Forward by Liz Agpaoa
It's April, 2017 and here in Atlanta, due to the warm Spring, the magnolias, dog woods and cherry trees have long since blossomed and turned to green. It reminded me of my first April in the Southern Regio. In Spring 2009, within months of my arrival as Regional Forester in Atlanta, I traveled to Savannah River Site (SRS) in Aiken, South Carolina. SRS is just east from Augusta, Georgia and lies within the "horse" country of SC. The bucolic area was popular during the past century, with horse owners from the north who sent their horses to SC, to "winter" on their horse farms.
SRS is a unique 310-square mile forested unit managed through the U.S. Forest Service. The land is part of Department of Energy (DOE) network. Located within the transition of the coastal plains and Piedmont, it is populated by the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) ecosystem. The SRS is a nuclear reservation, built in the 1950s to refine nuclear materials.
The Forest Service leaders and employees assigned to the secured SRS, work closely with DOE to maintain the forests surrounding the facilities. Due to the complicated protection required for the SRS facilities, the prescribed fire Rxs are very specific, both in planning and execution. The prescribed fire teams are some of the finest in the nation and must execute their plans year-round.
My first trip to SRS was not only a forest tour with dedicated employees, but a chance to participate in a wild turkey hunt sponsored by the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) in coordination with the Forest and DOE.
This was a unique hunt, familiarly called, a "Wounded Warrior" hunt. NWTF and the Forest designed a 2-day hunt specific to the needs of these hunters who served, and to manage the abundant turkey population on the site.
That April morning, as I sat behind a turkey blind among the longleaf pines and wire grass, with our guide and the wounded warrior, I recalled a past Chief's words to me, "You will not fully understand or appreciate the entire Forest Service, until you serve in the South."
Written by Keith Lawrence, former SRS Forest Supervisor
"In early 1950, nearly 200,000 acres of rural South Carolina, adjacent to the Savannah River was designated as the Savannah River Site to be administered and operated by the Atomic Energy Commission and later the U.S. Department of Energy. In the process, families and communities were displaced; the town of Ellenton was moved to become New Ellenton. The Site's mission was to produce nuclear material for national defense during the Cold War. It was and remains a secure site, "The Forest Behind the Gate."
The original land acquired was largely open with some 140,000 acres in agriculture, 40,000 acres that had been cut over and 20,000 acres remaining in forest. In 1952, an agreement established a U.S. Forest Service presence "behind the gate" with the primary mission to establish a forest, so similar to the Week's Act purpose and the shared beginnings of so many forests of the South.
By 1960, some 75 million pine seedlings had been planted in what was the largest reforestation effort in the world, at the time. Over the decades, the Forest Service role expanded to include soil restoration, roads, endangered species recovery, wetland restoration and wild land fire management and control and community outreach.
Even beyond traditional good forest stewardship, the SRS mission provides unique challenges and rewards. A primary mission of the Site is the cleanup of legacy waste from the Cold Era War of which tritium is a waste by-product. U.S. Forest Service engineering and research staff worked with DOE and partners to create and develop a cutting edge process to clean up tritium. The process they developed is amazingly straight forward and relies on photosynthesis, the plant dynamic many of us studied in school. Tritium contaminated water is intercepted in an excavated pond, filtered and applied to a loblolly pine plantation. Water containing tritium is absorbed by trees and evapotranspired. When tritium is exposed to the air, it readily decomposes.
To maintain a secure site, the forest health and risk to wildfire is a critical and continuous priority. Minimizing the the risk of both wildfire and smoke to the Site facilities, demands a full-time, highly skilled fire management organization. Employees implement an aggressive, multi-purpose prescribed burn program with a goal of keeping 90% of all wildfires below 10 acres with even stricter smoke protocols. With its year-round workload and precise burning objectives, SRS has a rich history of as a training ground for women and men across many fields.
SRS setting is uniquely situated to provide a setting for environmental education. In 1996, the Forest Service worked with DOE, and the Historically Black Colleges and Universities to establish the SR Environmental Field Station, hosting an average of 20 students per year.
This Southern forest that was mostly planted six decades ago, now supports a vital and diverse array of wildlife species. In 1984, only four Endangered Red Cockaded Woodpeckers were found in the Savannah River Forest. Through aggressive forest, mid-story and prescribed burning management, the Forest now supports over 400 of these endangered birds.
Due to active habitat enhancement and lack of public hunting, the Site supports a healthy population of wild turkey. Fourteen years ago, the Forest Service and partners pursued the goal to provide a meaningful hunting experience for mobility impaired hunters. This has expanded with the support of DOE to become an annual event, known as the Wounded Warrior/Mobility Impaired Ultimate Turkey Hunt. The event has been described by hunters and their volunteer guides as an experience of a lifetime.
Unlike the National Forests of the Southern Region, relatively few get the opportunity to experience the Savannah River Forest, the Forest behind the gate. Those who do take away memories of a special place.