How We Nearly Lost the South's Largest Old-Growth Floodplain Forest

Boardwalk and bench in Congaree National Park. (Photo: Denton Rumsey/Shutterstock)
A boardwalk winds through the wetlands of Congaree National Park, near Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo: Natalia Bratslavsky/Shutterstock)

If you're not familiar with the beauty of Congaree National Park, don't feel too bad. As one of the newest additions to our country's national park systems, it's truly an under-the-radar gem of the National Park Service.

Nestled within a floodplain between the Congaree and Wateree rivers of central South Carolina, this 27,000-acre national park boasts the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the Southeast.

Congaree's rare ecological value as an old-growth hardwood stronghold only underscores its aesthetic appeal. However, were it not for the grassroots action and stewardship of a group of passionate individuals, this swampy slice of paradise might not be around today.

Cypress knees emerge from the soggy earth of Congaree National Park in South Carolina. (Photo: Pierre Leclerc/Shutterstock)

Prior to the arrival of European settlers, Congaree was surrounded by more than 1 million acres of old-growth floodplain forest that spread out across the vast majority of South Carolina's low-lying geography. Typically bordering lands surrounding lakes and rivers, this swampy wooded landscape is characterized by loose, alluvial soils that support flood-friendly trees like bald cypress, oak and sweet gum. Sadly, as agricultural and logging operations began spreading through the region in the 1800s, it wasn't long before this unique landscape became endangered.

Today, there are only 13,000 acres of this rare type of forest left in South Carolina — 11,000 of it is found within Congaree while the remaining 2,000 acres are found in Francis Marion National Forest.

Congaree's boardwalks are prone to flooding when the region is hit with heavy rains. (Photo: Catie Leary)

The reason the Congaree area was able to avoid development has a lot to do with the challenging logistics of its location. The National Park Service explains in a park visitor's brochure:

"Attempts to make the floodplain suitable for farming and livestock operations continued from the early days of the settlers through the mid 1800's with little success. Around 1905, the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company, owned by Francis Beildler, acquired much of the low lying land along the Congaree and Santee river systems. Though many other areas were harvested of their valuable timber, poor accessibility in the floodplain confined logging to tracts near the main rivers. In these areas, cypress trees were killed and dried while standing, and then felled and floated down-river to the sawmills. Many of the logs sank as the dampness of the floodplain made them too heavy to float. Operations were soon halted, leaving the floodplain relatively untouched."

Despite this brief reprieve, it wasn't long before rising timber prices drove private landowners to try again, and in 1969, Congaree's precious old-growth forests were yet again on the choppi

Boardwalk and bench in Congaree National Park. (Photo: Denton Rumsey/Shutterstock)

Thankfully, concerned local citizens banded together and embarked on a grassroots campaign in conjunction with the Sierra Club to protect the dwindling floodplain forest. One of the conservationists who spearheaded the movement was Harry Hampton. Widely heralded as the "founding father" of South Carolina's conservation movement, Hampton was an avid outdoorsman and journalist who had been advocating for the protection of the Congaree floodplain since the 1950s.

After years of fighting, Hampton and his fellow citizens got their wish in 1976 when Congress established the Congaree Swamp National Monument. Over the years, Congaree received several other landmark protections, including status as an International Biosphere Reserve, a Globally Important Bird Area and a National Natural Landmark. Finally, in November 2003, Congress expanded the boundaries of the protected area and redesignated the national monument as Congaree National Park.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina. (Photo: Denton Rumsey/Shutterstock)

Since it has gained national protections, it has become a popular getaway for camping, hiking, kayaking, canoeing and bird watching. And while these are all excellent reasons to add Congaree to your vacation to-do list, the prevailing reason you should visit is to bear witness to its legacy of champion trees.

Believe it or not, Congaree National Park has the largest concentration of champion trees anywhere on the continent. Yep, even more per capita than other national parks that are famous for their distinguished trees, such as Redwood and Olympic national parks. Sure, Congaree National Park may only be 27,000 acres (compared to Redwood's 112,618 acres and Olympic's 922,650 acres), but just imagine what the numbers would be like today if logging and agricultural operations hadn't destroyed more than 1 million acres of South Carolina's old-growth floodplain forests.

To add even more distinction to its "tree cred," Congaree is home to the tallest known specimens of 15 tree species. This includes the tallest overall tree in the park — a champion loblolly pine that towers 169 feet above the rest of the forest.

It really begs the question ... would that legendary loblolly pine still be standing today if the park had not gained national protection in 1976? And what natural wonders of the world have we lost by not acting quickly enough to preserve them? We'll never know the answers to these questions, but we can take solace in the wondrous places we have saved and look to the future with these examples of conservation in mind.

Vertical panorama of tree in Congaree National Park. (Photo: digidreamgrafix /Shutterstock)
An elevated boardwalk trail winds through Congaree National Park. (Photo: Catie Leary)
Bulbous tree trunk in Congaree National Park. (Photo: Denton Rumsey/Shutterstock)
A red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) in Congaree National Park, South Carolina. (Photo: Denton Rumsey/Shutterstock)
Drier times at Congaree National Park. (Photo: Zack Frank/Shutterstock)