COLUMBIA — It appears Mother Nature came through with giant clippers and trimmed a little off the top of a 600-acre tract of 16-year-old longleaf pines in Manchester State Forest.
Last week's ice storm hit other areas with more ferocity, but the Manchester situation offers one snapshot of the enormous impact ice damage can have on the state's No. 1 cash crop -- timber.
More than 13 million acres in the state are managed for timber production, and 88 percent of that is privately owned. The harvest from those forests supports a timber industry with a $17 billion annual impact in the state, according to state forestry officials.
While much of the attention on the ground has been on getting power restored to the tens of thousands who spent the weekend without electricity, the most important long-term impact of the storm will be in the timber industry.
By all accounts, the damage this year covers a larger area than the 2004 ice storm, which caused $95 million in damage to the timber industry. The 2004 storm covered about a 20-mile swath of the state from Aiken through the Pee Dee. This time, the swath of heavy ice was nearly 80 miles wide, according to the S.C. Forestry Commission.
But it's impossible yet to determine if this year's damage will prove as costly. The ice ranged from half an inch to an inch thick in that swath, and the damage was moderate in the areas that got closer to half an inch, including the 28,000-acre Manchester forest in Sumter County.
In the large tract of longleaf pines with clipped tops at Manchester, most of the trees lost 3 or 4 feet of growth at the terminal buds at the top of their main stems. While some disease can enter through open wounds in those breaks, most of the trees in that stand will survive just fine. But when they eventually are harvested for timber, they won't have the ideal shape.
"The industry requires straight trees, but you're going to have that hook where it re-grows," said forest manager Harvey Belser.
A few miles away, 5-year-old longleaf saplings looked like they had been frozen in the middle of some sort of crazy dance party. Even once they thawed, some stayed leaning in one direction, some in another direction. Belser expects most will straighten out, but some, especially slightly older saplings, could be permanently damaged.
Plenty of small trees had fallen into the dirt roads through the forest, including Sumter County-maintained Bells Mill Road, which needs to be cleared before it can be used by school buses. The trees at the edges of roads often have thicker foliate on limbs on the side nearest the sunny forest opening. Ice builds up on those larger limbs, and the trees topple into the roads.
But the interior of most of the forest tracts with older pines appeared in good shape. In one section, loblolly pines on one side of the road stood tall, while those on the other bent to the ground. The damaged section had been thinned more recently, giving the ice-laden trees an easier path to bend over, Belser said.
All in all, Belser was relieved at what he saw. The damage at Manchester was minimal compared to the 2004 ice storm or the wind damage from Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
"I suspected worse when I came out here Friday," he said. "It's about time we caught a break on something."
Other parts of the state weren't as fortunate. The Forestry Commission has begun aerial surveillance, "but we don't have a good feel for the whole state yet," said Russell Hubright, chief of forest management for the commission.
Early flights found pockets of severe damage from Aiken through Orangeburg, but other areas nearby had little damage. In the Pee Dee, the worst damage appears to be in southern Florence County and northern Williamsburg County. Ron Holt, with the forestry commission's Kingstree unit, said 70 percent or more of the trees were snapped like matchsticks about 20 feet up in some tracts in Florence and Williamsburg counties, but only about 15 percent of trees are damaged in other tracts nearby.
In all cases, the most devastation is in young pines, ages 5-20, in tracts that have been thinned out recently.
Cam Crawford, president of the S.C. Forestry Association, agreed Monday that it's too early to get a handle on the damage, but he suspects it will merit a disaster declaration. Public and private forestry officials plan to meet Tuesday to go over preliminary information on damage .
A forest disaster declaration serves to encourage, but not force, forest products companies to make use of the damaged timber in the state. It also makes some state resources available to help salvage and repair forests on private and public lands. A state forest disaster was declared after the 2004 storm.