Many hunters in South Carolina lease land to hunt. Clubs or partnerships are formed in order to pool resources to lease, manage and hunt properties. Many times, the properties belong to owners or larger organizations who have invested in the land for the purpose of growing and selling trees — most often pine trees.

Several varieties of pines grow relatively quickly, and before you know it, it’s time to cut them so the wood to be sold. So the day arrives when word comes down that it’s time to harvest timber on your hunting land. In the overall scheme of a managed deer property, clear-cutting of mature pine trees is the best thing that could happen. Typically, land managers will harvest various tracts at different times, but the loss of all the trees on a favored tract is a mental thing, both for the deer and the hunter. A quiet forest of whispering pines must first be reduced to a desert before the cycle starts over.

The rise and spread of whitetail deer across the state of South Carolina can be traced back to one main cause; in the early 1950s, timber became big business, and much of the land that was not already occupied with agriculture or development was converted into stands of trees. Fueled by commercial and residential development, as well as a high demand for paper, trees became a valuable commodity and harvesting them was and still is big business.

Back in the day, much of this timber was hardwoods like oaks and poplars, but pines have always called the Palmetto State home, and it was pine, mostly loblolly, that was planted when the old forests were cut.

Not discounting the efforts of the agency that became the S.C. Department of Natural Resources — which was instrumental in relocating deer from the coastal plain to the Midlands and Upstate — major clear-cutting paved the way for transplanted deer to flourish. Thus began a new era in deer populations and management across the state, especially when those pines planted in the 1950s were harvested 25 to 30 years later. 

Fast forward to 2003. South Carolina’s statewide herd has reached an estimated one million plus deer, and deer numbers and hunter success are at an all-time high. According to Charles Ruth, deer-project coordinator for the SCDNR, there was really nowhere to go but down.

“In the late 1970s and 1980s, there was a lot of timber put on the ground, and it served as fuel for those deer that were out there,” said Ruth. “They tried to just overwhelm us there for a while, but where we are now, the state has acres and acres of mature pine plantations. The canopies of those mature trees starve out the ground cover that deer thrive on. The sustainability of the herd moderated, and the numbers have adjusted.” 

As it turns out, the best thing for the herd is to provide better habitat. That is achieved when whole plantations of pine, shadowing out the forest floor and choking out the ground cover browse that deer rely on for food nine to 10 months out of the year, are removed. 

 “The good, old-fashioned re-generating clear-cut is a deer’s best friend,” said Ruth. “That’s what put us back in the business — starting in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s — that was the fuel for getting deer back, particularly in the Upstate.  There were some deer here and there on the coastal plain, but there weren’t many deer in the piedmont.”  

Steven Smith of Greenville, who graduated from Clemson in 1993 with a degree in forest resource management, founded Cross Creek Timber in 2009. His diverse professional background and extensive knowledge of the timber industry, combined with his life-long love of hunting deer and bear, has given him a personal perspective on how forest management affects wildlife. 

Smith has worked with many landowners, some of whom lease their acreage to hunt clubs, and he understands that at the outset, clear-cutting can be traumatic to a hunter’s status quo. Logging operations are typically viewed as interfering with deer activity, even moving them off the property. To gain a better understanding of what’s involved, Smith described the typical sequence of what’s involved in clear-cutting and replanting a tract of land. Here it is in 3 basic steps.

Step 1 – Cut the trees down.

“The feller buncher is a machine that’s got the big saw on the front of it, and that’s what goes up and cuts the tree and lays it on the ground,” Smith said. “”As the trees are cut, you have what’s called a skidder that drags the trees up out of the woods to the loading area. Then a loader sits at the loading dock and picks the trees up and sorts them and puts them on a truck to be hauled off.”

Step 2 – Clear the site.

 “The basic process after the timber is cut (is that) the land is typically left fallow for a year, one full growing season,” said Smith. “Then, after that year, the summer after that full growing season, a contractor will come in with a herbicide and spray the site.  What they’re doing is they’re killing all the vegetation that is leafed out.” 

Step 3 – Replanting. 

“The trees are going to be planted the winter following the spray,” he said. “So, if we’re spraying in the summer, we’re going to come back in the fall, and usually replanting is late October through February/March.”

The process is simple enough — business-as-usual for the loggers — but for the hunters who lease the property, there’s some shared responsibility in removing stands and equipment before cutting. 

 “It would really be up to the property owner to notify the hunt club to say, “I’ve engaged a timber company to clear-cut this tract of land.  We’re going to recommend y’all get your stands out of there.”  

No set standard applies to all situations when it comes to non-movable stands. Some loggers will work around them, others won’t. Stands nailed into or otherwise attached to a tree, especially a money crop tree, represents part of the landowner’s investment. 

“Typically, you’ll find that the biggest portion of your loggers and foresters and all of us in this business are outdoorsmen, as well,” said Smith.  “A lot of us are hunters, so you’re going to find that if we see a deer stand out there, we’re going to do our best to either remove it, either take it outside the sale area so it doesn’t get damaged or, in some cases, work around it if we can. But there’s going to be some responsibility to the property owner to get all the trees he’s paid for. If there’s a deer stand in the tree and he sold that tree then it’s going to get cut.”  

At the end of the day, clear-cutting timber is good for deer, which is also good for hunters. Unfortunately, the clear-cutting process, replanting, and recovery, is not an overnight thing. Most experts say the year or two involved in the process is more troublesome for hunters than deer. Years 2 through 7 or 8, however, provide a habitat so deer-rich in growing both sizes and numbers of deer that the temporary pain of the process is soon forgotten.