TCS Daily

Private Plantation Reclaims Nature While Meeting Human Needs

By Robert J. Smith - February 5, 2001 12:00 AM

Located in the piney woods and bottomlands of the southeastern corner of South Carolina's coastal plain, between Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., is Cypress Bay Plantation of Cummings, S.C.

This private forestland, owned by Skeet Burris and his family, is an example of multiple-use management of forestland for long-term softwood production. It provides an instructive demonstration of how a substantial amount of the nation's forests owned and managed privately are able to provide an ever-growing amount of the nation's forest products. And it is a classic example of the private provision -- at private cost -- of public environmental amenities.

Burris, his wife Gail, and youngest son Charlie, reside in coastal Beaufort, S.C., where he has a successful orthodontic practice. Burris decided some 20 years ago that he wanted his family to become forest landowners as well. Existing plantations are seldom available or affordable. Some families are wealthy enough to hold their plantations for generations, despite a tax system seemingly designed to splinter landholdings and ecosystems into a patchwork of tiny fragmented plots. When death taxes do force large, well-managed plantations onto the market, their prices are often stratospheric and their fate is often shopping malls or housing developments.

Burris in 1986 finally found an abandoned, cutover, exhausted 100-acre farm, with dilapidated barns and shacks that had been constructed in the 1890s. "All kinds of trash was lying around," recalls Skeet. "It was just wiped out. The barns on the land had been left to decay, as were the few trees that remained. The whole place was a total disaster --but it was affordable."

In 1989, three years after purchasing the land, he had it under a written Forest Management Plan. Two years later he became a certified tree farmer in the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) and was qualified to place the American Tree Farm member's signs on his property.

Founded in 1941, the American Tree Farm System currently has some 66,000 private landowner members, managing over 83 million acres in all parts of the nation. A landowner must first be certified by a professional forester that his or her land is being managed up to the highest silvicultural standards, and that soil, air, water, wildlife habitat and species, and aesthetic values are all managed at a high standard. Members must be recertified every five years to keep them up to ever-improving standards. Various state chapters have annual contests for State Tree Farmer of the Year; the organization's four national regions select a Regional Tree Farmer of the Year; and those four winners compete for the National Tree Farmer of the Year award.

In 1995, just nine years after purchasing an abandoned farm described as a "total disaster," Skeet and Gail Burris were selected by the ATFS as the South Carolina Tree Farmer of the Year. The following year they won the Southern Regional Tree Farmer of the Year title.

How did Burris and his family accomplish that?

The first step was for the family to develop a vision statement for the land they had christened Cypress Bay Plantation. It read: "Our vision is to develop an ordinary piece of land and, with a plan and a commitment to lots of hard work, create a tree farm that will serve as a model for other tree farmers." The statement included five principles: (1) restoration of the land, buildings, and forest; (2) conservation practices for trees, their primary crop; (3) preservation of the native live oaks, wildflowers, and non-game animal species; (4) education through demonstrating the finest modern tree-farming practices to their neighbors; and (5) perpetuation of the forests for multiple uses, including recreation, to "ensure a sustainable forest which will be self-sustaining for generation after generation."

In the first year, the Burrises began restoring and upgrading the existing tumbled-down buildings into serviceable barns and a magnificent cabin, highlighted by beautiful refinished heart-pine flooring. They also cleared wildlife food plots out of the overgrown thickets and began planting their first trees. Establishing credibility in the community, the family was able to slowly purchase and lease additional parcels of land contiguous to or very near their property, so that Cypress Bay now totals 958 acres with another 2,250 acres of surrounding lands leased to carry out a broad wildlife-management plan for the native white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and Northern bobwhite.

Because the plantation is a multiple-use tree farm, the first task after preparing the ground was to start replanting the forests. Relying almost entirely on their own labor, as well as that of friends who want to hunt and fish at Cypress Bay, they have planted over 112,000 trees. Most of these are longleaf and loblolly pines, which are the dominant trees of the Southeastern forest ecosystem and valuable for timber.

As the plantation is also being used for hunting, hundreds of oak trees of five species have been planted for the mast crops, including 449 saw tooth oaks, a non-native species that is attractive, fast-growing, and a very early producer of acorns. Additionally, scores of ornamental and fruiting trees have been planted for aesthetic purposes and for game and non-game species.

Throughout this process, Burris made a special effort to preserve all the native live oaks -- the giant Spanish-moss-festooned trees of the antebellum South. This involved cutting out and bushhogging the competing trees, and removing brush thickets, vines, and creepers to "release" the oaks and allow them to grow. Smaller live oaks and saplings are usually moved out of the forests and into open areas, wildlife plots, and along roadsides.

Cypress Bay lacks a water source, so 50 acres of ponds have been constructed to increase wildlife diversity and heighten the aesthetic value of the property. These include fish ponds, greentree reservoirs, and duck ponds, which are seasonally planted and flooded. More than 4,000 bald cypress have been planted around and through the greentree reservoirs and along some of the smaller ponds, serving as shelter for wildlife and adding beauty to the plantation.

The various ponds provide habitat for nesting ducks in the spring and summer as well as feeding and roosting habitat for much larger numbers of waterfowl that spend the winter. Large wading birds, including the great blue heron, all-white great egret and the snowy egret, use the ponds. The fish-catching belted kingfisher is evident by its loud rattling call as well. Burris takes special pride in turning old fields into prime wildlife habitat, as evidenced by the endangered wood storks that feed in his bald cypress greentree reservoir throughout summer.

From the beginning, Burris has coordinated his efforts with a number of private wildlife associations, including the South Carolina Waterfowl Association's Wood Duck and Mallard projects. Burris has released over 1,400 ducks, hoping to take hunting pressures off the wild migratory waterfowl which winter in the area

The overall mosaic of different ages, sizes, and types of forests, interspersed with a variety of fields, wildlife habitats and food plots, wetlands and ponds, creates a highly appealing and extremely diverse landscape. It is certainly more varied and interesting, with a wider array of habitat for non-game and game species, than most similarly sized unmanaged "wildlands."

Working closely with a number of private wildlife conservation groups such as Quail Unlimited, the Quality Deer Management Association, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the South Carolina Waterfowl Association, and Ducks Unlimited, Burris is already generating a top-rate revenue for his deer-hunting leases, upland-bird leases and duck-blind leases. His wildlife-management practices have been so outstanding and are producing such high-quality hunting that people are queuing up across the Southeast for the opportunity to obtain a lease.

What accounts for the Burris family's -- and the property's -- success? They chalk it up to the fact that they own the land. It is their future, their children's future, and their children's children's future. They developed their own vision statement for the land and they followed Proverbs 29:18: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." "I could visualize what I knew the land could become," says Skeet Burris, "and that kept me focused."

To see Cypress Bay now is to witness the truly marvelous results that derive from private ownership, as self-interest and private stewardship are directed into enlightened conservation.

This case study was written by Center for Private Conservation senior scholar Robert J. Smith. Created in 1995, the Center for Private Conservation, a project of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, researches, documents, and promotes the public benefits of private conservation and private stewardship. The center is supported by the William H. Donner Foundation.

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