Monday, April 17, 2017 Blog · News

In praise of trees. Highway funding basics. (It’s not about the money.) Offshore oil. (It’s not about energy independence.) Weigh in on the (automatic) stay. What’s up with conservation? Ombra mai fu.

by Dana Beach

Ombra mai fu

di vegetabile,

cara ed amabile,

soave più.

From “Serse” by George Frederic Handel



I’ve spent a lot of the last week outdoors, both in the mountains and on the Black and Pee Dee rivers.  (This is my lame excuse for skipping last week’s e-mail.)  The forests are mystical this time of year, with fresh leaves bathing road and river edges in diffused green light.  In the mountains, silver bell and serviceberry flowers are emerging, and dogwoods and late blooming redbuds punctuate the woods from the escarpment to the ocean.

This article, from the BBC, reports that a recent botanical survey cataloged 60,000 tree species worldwide.  South Carolina is truly fortunate to have some of the planet’s greatest forest ecosystems – bottomland hardwoods, longleaf pine savannahs, the mountain coves of the southern Appalachians, among others – all contained within our relatively small (20 million acre) state, and with them, a disproportionate number of tree species.

The article describes the threats trees in Malawi and Madagascar face, but some species in the southeastern U.S. have also been extinguished or are on the verge of disappearing.  The most prominent is the American chestnut (Castanea dentate), which formerly dominated mountain forests from Alabama to New England.  The chestnut was wiped out by a blight imported from Asia in the early 20th century.

The good news is that the American Chestnut Foundation ( is making progress breeding blight-resistant trees.  With luck and hard work, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will see these majestic giants (up to 100 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter) recolonize their ancestral homeland.

Most recently, Eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) as far north as Virginia have succumbed to the hemlock wooly adelgid, also imported from Asia.  In the mountains of North and South Carolina only skeletons remain along the edges of mountain streams and creeks.

Red bays (Persia borbonia) – beautiful understory members of the laurel family, with aromatic leaves – have suffered a similar decline, caused by a fungus carried by a non-native beetle.  Unlike the hemlock, however, many red bays are still unaffected and holding their own.

Spring is a great time to reconnect with forests, and to celebrate and conserve trees, magnificent in their own right and the foundations of life on our green planet.

New highways are not as big a threat to trees as invasive species are, but they fragment habitat and, in the wrong places, accelerate urban sprawl.  They also drain public coffers of funds that could otherwise be used to repair our existing, oversized road system.  (South Carolina’s state road network ranks fourth largest in the nation, with more than 40,000 miles of asphalt.)

On the theme of “it’s complicated,” (but not inscrutable), this article from The Greenville News by Tim Smith illuminates the challenges South Carolina faces in transportation.  The article is, without a doubt, the best explanation ever of how transportation funding works.  It is essential reading for anyone who really wants to understand what needs to be done (in contrast to the sound-bite arguments that pass for informed debate.)

I encourage you to read the whole thing.  It is long but more than worth it.  Here is the first paragraph:

COLUMBIA –  One out of every four dollars that goes into the state Department of Transportation’s coffers has been spent on debt or shifted to other agencies, and much of the remainder has been designated for uses other than resurfacing or rehabilitating the state’s deteriorating roads, records reviewed by The Greenville News show.

In spite of assertions by road building interests, it is clear that simply pouring more money into this broken system is unlikely to produce the advertised results.  And it is also (somewhat) clear that once the system is reformed, it will require more money than it has now to do what needs to be done.

At the micro-level, this article from the Post and Courier reports that work is beginning on the Maybank Highway lane addition on John’s Island.  What you should know is that this modest project was inexplicably delayed for almost a decade, in spite of the fact that it was funded, permitted and supported by a large majority of people.  On John’s Island and statewide, the difficulty repairing and improving roads has as much to do with politics as with a lack of money.

On the theme of “it’s not complicated,” this next article from the Washington Post reports that the Trump Administration is considering an executive order opening the Atlantic to offshore oil exploration and drilling.  (Just when you thought it was safe for right whales, dolphin and fish…)  This explanation from Jackie Savitz with Oceana succinctly explains why this is a bad idea.

“Expanding offshore drilling into new areas like the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans would put vibrant ocean ecosystems at risk and be bad for business, threatening thriving coastal economies and lucrative industries, including tourism, recreation and fishing,” Savitz said.

“Business leaders along the Atlantic coast have been vocal in their opposition to offshore drilling, (as has every single coastal town and city in South Carolina), and the decades-long push to drill in the Arctic has put its unique and diverse ecosystem at risk, cost tens of billions of dollars and created significant controversy without profitable results.”

These points compile on top of the fact that U.S. oil production reached an all-time high in 2015 and U.S. oil imports have fallen steadily since 2006.  Offshore oil exploration is decidedly not a prerequisite for energy independence.

Fortunately, Governor Henry McMaster has expressed concerns about offshore exploration.  Reading between the lines, it sounds like he could use some public support for his position.  I think you will agree that his comments (“serious, deep concerns”) are not exactly unequivocal.

Another issue Governor McMaster could use some help with is the “automatic stay,” a legal term for hitting the pause button on development and road projects that are under administrative appeal.  This article, by Sammy Fretwell with the State, explains the provision and reports that the governor has sided with development interests in Myrtle Beach in their efforts to remove this modest safeguard.

This article from the Columbia Free Times explores the status and trajectory of the environmental movement in South Carolina, (transitions at the Conservation League and the Conservation Voters of S.C.), and the latest flurry of anti-environmental legislation.  The author, Eva Moore, wonders whether there are causal relationships here.  (Has President Trump’s “war on the environment” emboldened the anti-environment contingent in the Legislature?)  I don’t think so, but the piece does provide an enlightening update on the people and issues in the forefront of the effort.

I’m sure those of you who are not fluent in Italian, (as I am not), have been wondering what the verse at the beginning of this e-mail means.  It is a lyric from an unsuccessful opera by Handel called “Serse,” in which the legendary Persian king, Xerxes I, (ca 480 BC), sings to a plane tree (Plantanus orientalis).  (I would feel better about our new president if he sang to, say, a live oak, or even a loblolly pine.)

Here is the translation.

Never was there shade

Of any plant

Dearer, more lovely,

Or more sweet.

And never was there a lovelier rendition than this version by the extraordinary Kathleen Battle.

The forests are pale green; wild azaleas and blue flag iris are blooming; barred owls, warblers and whip-poor-wills are singing, alligators are roaring.  Get out and enjoy this magnificent weekend!


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