The tour group begins the trek into the Okatie Regional Preserve in Bluffton. The preserve recently was designated as the newest member of the national Old-Growth Forest Network. PHOTOS BY GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

Light rain filtering through the tree canopy overhead was pretty much ignored as a small group on a walking tour entered the Okatie Regional Preserve off Cecil Reynolds Drive in Bluffton. The thick, lush green of the leaves and vegetation also filtered most of the adjacent highway noise as the visitors were introduced to a future passive park.

The preserve is 187 acres of mixed pine and hardwood upland forest, bottomland hardwood forest, and salt marsh at the headwaters of the Okatie River. In January, the preserve was designated as the newest member of the Old-Growth Forest Network. 

“We are a national nonprofit that focuses on our oldest forests across the country, trying to ensure that every county that can grow a forest will one day have an old-growth forest,” said Sarah Adloo, executive director of the Old-Growth Forest Network. “This particular property for this county represents some of the older, untouched wild forest that will soon be open to the public.” 

The designation makes the Okatie Regional Preserve only the second South Carolina park to be part of the network The other is Congaree National Park, which includes in its 27,000 acres the largest intact expanse (11,000 acres) of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. 

There are 199 forests in 33 states in the network.

“One of the reasons why we chose this particular forest is because of the white oaks that are on this property,” said Stefanie Nagid, Beaufort County passive parks manager. “They’re not unique to the Midland or Upstate folks, but down here in the Lowcountry it’s kind of a unique tree species, and we don’t see many large ones because they grow in an area that is highly prized for development.”

At the head of the group, Beaufort County arborist and Passive Parks Manager Michael Murphy began pointing out some of the unique qualities of the trees along the rough trail.

“This forest has diversity beyond anything we could think of. Here we’ve got an elm tree, and people always think the American elm has just been devastated all over the country, but we have what’s called the black elm or water elm that’s related to it,” said Murphy. “It doesn’t get the Dutch elm disease, mostly because the beetle that carries the vector doesn’t really hang out down here.”

Murphy pointed out the wide root plate of the elm, explaining that it was not only indicative of an elm but of a high-water table, making the tree respond by growing a stronger root plate for stability during storms. He made other points about the sweet gum, which provides fruit for wildlife; the American sycamore – uncommon in the Lowcountry but extensive in the Northeast; and the wax myrtle, part of the understory beneath the taller oaks and pines.

“This forest is large enough to have a healthy understory because it’s not just the trees that live in here. It’s all the animals and the birds and microorganisms and arthropods,” Murphy said. “Everything that can live and make the soil healthy is here and the understory is just as important as the overstory.”

Throughout the forest along the trail were bushes, grasses, decaying leaves and fallen trees. The arborist said most of the time a forest does not need maintenance, particularly an old-growth forest. He pointed out a fallen pine a few feet into the woods.

“When you really think about it, trees are designed actually to fail. Their main goal in life is to grow, die, and become food for the trees that are around them. Hundreds of trees die in a forest for every handful that live,” Murphy said. “When you think about that, these are the plants that we build our houses under, that we drive under every single day, that we paid more for having them on our property. And then we get all upset when a limb falls. Well, this is what they’re supposed to do. … You have to realize that there’s a certain amount of risk that you have when a tree is there. It’s just the way they’re built: they’re built to fail.” 

Sun City resident Georgia Ringo is looking forward to when the park is opened, which Nagid said might be in two or three years, depending upon completion of planning and the construction of minimal amenities such as an entryway, benches and a bathroom.

“I do all kinds of trails. I’m with Girls Who Hike South Carolina, and I think we have maybe 12,000 members statewide,” said Ringo. “We get groups together and go to parks and nature areas and hike.”

Murphy pointed out one of the older trees – a white oak approximately 75 years old. Adloo said such a tree supports as many as 500 species.

“Just having one in a wide-open area is benefiting so much around it. Not to say the other trees aren’t, but the white oaks are like that,” she said.

A new wing of arboriculture is called “conservation arboriculture” that deals with maintaining older trees, veteran trees and ancient trees. 

Murphy explained that an ancient tree is one that is old for its species, and preserving and maintaining them are highly beneficial for other plants and wildlife. “And they’re also much more efficient at doing what they do, which is pulling carbon dioxide out of the air and pushing oxygen back out,” he said. “For every one old tree, you’d have to have hundreds and hundreds of smaller trees around, so the conservation of these older trees is very important.”

There aren’t many old-growth forests around, according to Adloo, who said only 1% of what once was, has been removed.

“And that’s why it’s so urgent to make sure that we have even younger forests set aside to age into that old growth character and all those benefits,” she said.

Crossing through the strip of the property that carries the power lines, Murphy responded to an earlier comment by one of the guests about why there were so few white oaks if this property had been preserved for that particular tree.

“Well, here we are on the other side of the powerlines. And this is where the majority of the white oaks are,” he said. “You can’t throw a rock here without hitting one.” 

Having reached the end of the navigable trail, Nagid turned the group around for the return trip. 

Unbeknownst to several of the group members who were ahead of them, two people trailing behind were literally getting a head start on Earth Day cleanup. By the time they reached the cars, Jerri Dipietro and Vera Shoaff had two barrels and a bucket overflowing with bottles, plastic, cans, trash and a pipe.

“This is virgin property, and nobody’s been out here to clean it up,” said Dipietro, “so whatever has been blown into or thrown into or dropped is here. I do (this) whenever there’s an opportunity for a trash pickup.”

As Nagid told the group at the beginning of the hike, there is much work to be done before the park can be opened to the public, including generating plans and finding grants to help fund any construction. As part of both the passive parks program and the Old-Growth Forest Network, the property will provide green space that will be protected from lumbering for perpetuity, as per the Beaufort County Council.

“I hope all of you by coming on this walk, it has given you a new pair of glasses to see a forest thoroughly so you can see the beauty in a dead tree or the defects of a tree,” said Adloo. “You can start to recognize the diversity in the plants and the sounds that an older forest will give you when you’re walking on that much thicker leaf and mulch layer.” 

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.