Originally Published in the Post and Courier on October 18, 2023
Written by: Maddy Quon
JEDBURG — It’s hard to miss when you’re driving Interstate 26. Everywhere you look, you see it. Or rather, you don’t see it.
Trees that used to adorn the sides and median of the interstate are being cut down. Or are already gone.
Kelly Moore, a spokeswoman with the South Carolina Department of Transportation, said the DOT has several construction projects underway along I-26 between Charleston and the intersection with Interstate 95 that mandate tree clearing.
Between mile markers 149 and 172 — exits for S.C. Highway 33, Orangeburg and Cameron; and St. George and Santee — is a pavement rehabilitation project.
The intersection of I-26 and Interstate 95 is getting cleared in advance of the interchange improvement project.
In all, thousands of trees, mostly pine, have got to go.
The work may be a piled-up eyesore today but Moore said the tree-clearing has a dual purpose. It will improve safety for drivers by reducing the number of collisions with trees, and it will reduce the impact of severe weather on interstate travel.
According to state Department of Public Safety, since 2001 there have been 91 fatal collisions that involve striking a tree on I-26 in Berkeley and Dorchester counties, and another 813 injury collisions. Those accidents led to 100 deaths and 1,231 people injured.
The state DOT started cutting down trees along this corridor in 2015. The current cutting projects likely will conclude by January 2024, Moore said.
She added that DOT recently completed a safety project that included clearing between mile markers 169 and 193, where workers installed low-tension cable guardrails and lengthened existing guardrails.
The cost to cut the trees varies by project, according to state figures. The section between Ridgeville and Jedburg is approximately $800,000, while the section from mile markers 149 to 172 cost around $2.75 million.
What happens to the trees that are cut down also varies by project. Sometimes they are mulched on site, but in other instances a contractor may take the lumber to a mill where it’s used for wood chips, wood pulp and logs.
T.J. Johnson, the DOT commissioner representing the state’s 1st Congressional District, said no rules were set on what must be done with the trees.
Tim Evans, director of land conservation at Audubon South Carolina, expressed concern for the number of trees the state is losing, since they provide natural habitat.
“The I-95 corridor is one of the focuses for National Audubon because it runs the length of the Eastern Seaboard and the Atlantic flyway,” he said. “So where we have this connection of I-95 and I-26, seeing this loss of forested habitat is a concern.”
He added that South Carolina has seen a decrease in the last few years in forest. “We’re a state that has a little over 12 million acres of forest land, and that number has declined slightly,” he said.
Evans said he understands why DOT is clearing the trees, as South Carolina is growing rapidly and the highway department needs to alleviate pressure on the roadways. Still, he’s worried about the lasting impacts the loss of trees will have.
“When we talk about population growth and people coming to South Carolina, we have to remember why they’re coming,” he said. “They’re coming because of the climate and the natural history and the live oaks with the Spanish moss hanging in them, and the natural surrounding that they didn’t have where they came from. We can’t destroy the things that the people are coming for, in order to accommodate the people that are coming.”
Moore said the tree clearing along the highway should raise no flooding concerns.
“Interstates are designed to strict standards with the slope designed to move water off of the roadway in the event of heavy rain,” she said.