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The change is palpable, unmistakable when you enter the forested section of the 12,000-Year History Park portion of the Cayce Riverwalk. From parking areas along Fort Congaree Trail near the Cayce Tennis and Fitness Center, a paved sidewalk follows a wide gravel road bed for about 100 yards before reaching a “T” at the greenway trail proper. Turning right and entering the forest, the temperature seems immediately to cool 10 degrees.

Less tangible but equally powerful, the burdens of day-to-day life lift as the green aura of nature and the smell of the floodplain wash over you. The feeling of being deep in a forest has been the hallmark of this section of the greenway, also known as the Timmerman Trail. That’s why some frequent users were saddened recently when the City of Cayce opted to clear-cut two city-owned tracts adjacent to the trail.

All of the trees were taken down in one section north of the trail and one south of the trail, both just east of Old State Road. On a steamy August day, the difference was notable. With less shade, the section of the trail just east of Old State Road was brighter and warmer. The city’s contractors left a buffer of trees and vegetation around the trail, but the buffer is small enough in some places, or the vegetation thin enough, that sightlines lead to an open field. If those fields had been clear cut before the trail was built, the feeling would have been different. But after five years of deep forest hiking and biking, the change is striking.

Fortunately, it’s only noticeable for a few hundred yards at either cut. Cayce officials say the timber harvest served two purposes — promoting forest health while also producing revenue. SCANA deeded the 359-acre history park tract to Cayce in 2014, after the company built a trail through the property along Congaree Creek, which runs through the property. The land use has gone through many phases — as a ceremonial gathering spot for native tribes for centuries, cleared for agricultural use in the 1800s, and planted for commercial timber in the late 1900s. Rows of pine planted for timber are meant to be harvested. In fact, unharvested they make for an unhealthy forest, especially susceptible to widespread wind damage or pine beetle infestation, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR).

With that in mind, SCDNR cut the timber on a 94-acre tract it owns just south of the Cayce land early this year. The company that timbered the SCDNR property noticed the rows of mature pines on the adjacent Cayce-owned land and asked city officials about harvesting it. After consulting with SCDNR and considering bids to cut the timber, Cayce partnered with Epting Foresting to clear cut two sections.

Cayce Mayor Elise Partin is passionate about the trail system, and to her this was more about maintaining a healthy forest than the revenue from sale of timber. “I love this place,” she said recently while conversing with me  at a shelter on the riverfront portion of the greenway. “I’d stand in front of a bulldozer” before letting it cause harm. The cutting of land planted for timber production, can be a positive. The health of the surrounding forest is critical for the trail system. Mature pines in close proximity pose fire hazards as they die from insect infestation or disease or simply get wiped out in one fell swoop by a hurricane.

Some wildlife species — deer, rabbits and many species of birds — thrive in the area where forests meet open fields. Anyone who frequents the greenway in this area probably has seen deer munching on vegetation on the edge of the trail opening. At least one has recently seemed to grow unfazed by humans walking or riding within a few feet. While it’s always a treat to encounter wildlife on the trail, they might be better off feeding at the edges of the two new clear cut sections.

And the best news is that Cayce has no plan to develop either cleared tract (which would be difficult anyway with only dirt-road access and a bridge over Congaree Creek that is unsafe for truck traffic). Instead, the timbered property is following the same path as the cut SCDNR land and will be allowed to regenerate as a natural (instead of planted) forest. It’ll be fascinating to watch the forest change as we hike or bike through it in the coming years.

_ Joey Holleman