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Engagement essential to protecting scenic highways

South Carolinians have often sought the shade of the great live oaks that have proudly become so central to the beloved sea island aesthetic and places further inland. They, as avenues, line entrances to properties, have been a part of movies galore and are deeply symbolic of the rural South.

Furthermore, the canopies of 200 year old giants, draped in Spanish moss, contain a link to the past and a reminder of nature’s longevity. So, it was to my surprise, when, upon a trip down to a friend’s dock on Edisto Island, I witnessed the hideous defoliation that had occurred on Highway 174.

Inducted as a National Scenic Highway nearly a decade ago, Highway 174 is known by many residents and visitors alike for its causeway over an immense tract of marshland, as well as its lovely shaded live oak canopies. However, for the length of the highway, all I could see were the crispy brown leaves that were rapidly falling off the oaks — many planted as part of the Legacy Live Oak Project.

I spoke with Mr. John Girault, executive director of Edisto Island Open Land Trust, which is one of the many organizations that spearheaded Highway 174’s recognition as a National Scenic Highway. The Land Trust had launched a fundraising project, in which, benefactors could donate a certain amount of money to have a live oak planted in their honor or that of their loved ones. The Legacy Live Oaks hold a special place in many residents’ hearts as some were planted in memory of beloved family members. To many donors, the vast memories of the loved ones and their experiences on Edisto are as complex and powerful as the root system of a mature live oak.

Mr. Girault expressed his disapproval of the herbicide spraying and assured me that the party responsible was the South Carolina Department of Transportation; he also noted that maintenance work is a serious challenge. Highway 174 faces more than most. He said, “I’ve driven down [Highway 174] after a hurricane or even a big storm, and the downed limbs are a serious hazard. He continued: “I don’t even drive during the storms themselves.” Mr. Girault suggested that, “Maintenance is needed on the roads every three to five years or so,” and that he understood the DOT’s need to prune large limbs. However, that being said, Mr. Girault held true to his point that they should be pruning these trees — not spraying them.

In trying to reach the S.C.D.O.T., many employees had trouble placing or taking any blame for the situation, so much so that it was hard to find a statement. Finally, I was put in touch with Jennifer Gruber, vegetation manager of the S.C.D.O.T. Once on the phone, she was incredibly receptive, and said she “understands that people in the community are upset.” She continued by saying, “We already have two teams clearing out the dead brush.” However, she continued by stating that the DOT has no intention of changing their policy of herbicide spraying at this point. Although this is certainly disappointing for many residents of Edisto, she rebounded about future involvement from conservation groups.

When asked about potential future cooperation between the department and conservation groups in the area, Ms. Gruber said that upper management was still in discussion with potential outfits, and said, “We have already spoken with at least the Coastal Conservation League.”

What is certainly being addressed is that spraying during the summer impacts the roadway more drastically than necessary due to it being the peak tourist and tree growth seasons. Moreover, citizens may write D.O.T. and suggest that they develop a maintenance policy so that damage may be incurred when it is at a less devastating time of the year.

Although it seems some progress is being made, the lack of any change to the department’s herbicide spraying policy leaves the future of Edisto’s live oaks and scenic highway twisting like Spanish moss in the breeze. With further input from conservation groups and citizens, cooperation will continue, and as Mr. Girault would like to see happen, “one hand can finally start talking to the other.”

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