Magazine article American Forests

Where the Trees Are Still Tall: The Story of an Adventure through the Giant and Undisturbed Forests of Congaree National Park

Magazine article American Forests

Where the Trees Are Still Tall: The Story of an Adventure through the Giant and Undisturbed Forests of Congaree National Park

Article excerpt

For the second time in 30 minutes my way was blocked by a swamp. But what did I expect? I was bushwhacking to find the biggest swamp tupelo. I could have gone straight ahead, following my compass bearing, but I would have emerged on the other side looking and feeling like my amphibious ancestors of 375 million years ago. Although just 15 miles southeast of Columbia, South Carolina, this forest conjures such primeval thoughts.

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I made the detour, accompanied by an entourage of biodiversity bent on making a substantial and unauthorized withdrawal from my private blood bank. A few of them paid. Dearly. But most got away with enough of me to ensure that the Mosquito Meter at the nearby Congaree National Park visitor center would soon rev up from borderline Severe, through Ruthless, to War Zone as spring turned to summer. After circumventing the swamp, I forced my way through dense stands of switch cane where, I found out later, I picked up a couple hundred chiggers that also wanted, and got, a piece of me.

Now, given sufficient motivation, I can complain about the hardships of wilderness travel as well as any city slicker, but I reserve a special place for the biting and stinging hordes. They are Mother Earth's ultimate rangers. How much of the old-growth forest of Congaree National Park, I wondered, would be left if these guardians had not been on the front lines?

As it stands, very little eastern old-growth forest of any commercial value survived the wave of logging that characterized most of American history. Recent estimates by the Eastern Old Growth Clearinghouse place the total at about one million acres, less than one-third of one percent of the current forest cover east of the Great Plains. Well over half of the remaining old forest is found in just three areas: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Adirondacks of New York, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota each has over 200,000 acres (312 square miles) of uncut forest. Most other tracts of virgin forest are much less than 1,000 acres, often less than 100. So the 11,000 acres of old-growth forest that cover half of Congaree National Park represent one of the crown jewels of eastern forests.

The Congaree is even more special than its size alone would indicate. Most eastern old-growth is tucked away in less accessible coves, on steep slopes, or at higher elevations in the mountains. Old forests on flat lowlands are exceedingly rare. Congaree National Park contains the largest remaining area of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. Period.

Another distinguishing feature of the Congaree is that many of its trees literally stand above all else. According to the Eastern Native Tree Society, based on direct tape drop or laser measurements by Will Blozan and Jess and Doug Riddle, Congaree boasts the tallest known specimens of 15 species! Emerging above the canopy layer is a loblolly pine that looks down on everything from 167 feet, just 18 feet shy of the Boogerman white pine in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the tallest known tree in the East. Among the other first-place record holders for loftiness in the canopy are a sweetgum (157 feet), a cherrybark oak (154), an American elm (135), a swamp chestnut oak (133), an overcup oak (131), a common persimmon (127), and a laurel oak (125). No wonder Congaree is known as the "Redwoods of the East"!

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And, like the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats, the environmental conditions that have created such airy crowns have also nourished exaggerated stature in the sub-canopy and understory trees. Nowhere else are you likely to find a taller swamp cottonwood (115 feet), winged elm (104), American holly (91), Carolina ash (82), American hornbeam (68), pawpaw (53), or possumhaw (44). Congaree also has the second-tallest common baldcypress (141 feet), sugarberry (108), and water-elm (65). …

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