By Mike McCombs
Photo by Bob Sofaly
Hunting Island State Park, like all of South Carolina’s state parks, has been closed since the end of the day on Friday, March 27 on the order of Governor Henry McMaster as part of the state’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.
It would be a mistake to presume, however, that nothing has been going on on Hunting Island.
Hunting Island State Park Manager J.W. Weatherford said having the park without visitors or campers has created the perfect opportunity to get some things done.
First of all, Weatherford said rangers are getting in a lot of chainsaw work, pruning up the campground.
“Our campground stays so full, it’s hard for us to cut big oaks and tall pines with the campground full of campers,” Weatherford said. “With it empty, we’ve been able to get to a lot of trees that campers have left their mark on. We go through the campground and look for those marks where campers have put dings on them to let us know the trees are damaged, or too close to campsites. That’s the main thing we’re doing is going through the campground and taking out hazard trees.”
Weatherford said that during the Hurricanes Matthew and Irma, the park contracted for about 2,000 trees to be removed in the park and campground. The contractor took them down and took them out of the park, but that left 2,000 stumps that are trip hazards and don’t look very good.
“It’s hard to give it a really finished look in the campground when there are 2,000 stumps all over the place,” he said.
Rangers are taking advantage of the empty park, using tractors to move downed trees and running two stump grinders for 10 hours a day, each, to get rid of as many stumps as possible, giving the park and campground a more manicured look.
On the beach
With chainsaw work soon to be complete, Weatherford said rangers will begin concentrating on the freshly re-nourished beaches.
Rangers are going through all of the beach accesses and roping them off, showing people how we need to get on the beach, while also protecting the sand dunes.
“We’ve done about a mile of sand fence so far, front and back of the sand dunes, Weatherford said. “We’ve got material just delivered for about 9,000 more feet of sand fencing.”
Much of that new fencing is going to go at the top of the sand dunes to keep the “mama sea turtles from going over the back side.”
“Our sand dunes are, on average, 10-12 feet high. That’s great. It’s really going to help with the storm surge if we ever have another one, which I’m sure we will,” Weatherford said. “(The dunes are) sloped gradually on the front to help push the water back out and give the sea turtles places to nest. But the back side is more of a sheer drop-off. The mother sea turtles could climb back up, but babies could not.”
Weatherford expects all the sand fencing to be complete in the next week to a week and a half.
Closer to the end of month, the park service will award a contract to a vendor who will install between 60,000 and 90,000 plants, such as sea oats, to help maintain and stabilize the sand dunes over the more than two miles of beach where there was beach re-nourishment.
Some time later this year, there are plans to repave everything in the campground and the park, Weatherford said, including the campground road and loops, Hunting Island Drive for North and South Beach and the Nature Center parking lot on the Fripp Island side. The work is funded and approved and will go out in next month or so for bids.”
Weatherford said it’s up in the air what the bids are going to look like with weight restriction on the Harbor River Bridge potentially driving up costs.
It’s just really weird
Hunting Island State Park remains closed through April 30. Weatherford said there are discussions going on about what the re-opening of the parks will look like, be it all at once or gradual. But no matter what, Weatherford expects a May 1 opening of some kind for Hunting Island.
Weatherford said S.C. Parks, Recreation and Tourism has a delicate job balancing between recreation and conservation.
“As much as we want to protect Hunting Island and we want to protect the sea turtles and the lighthouse, equally as important is providing recreational opportunities for, not just citizens, but tourists …,” he said. “It’s hard to look around and only see a bunch of people wearing gray shirts and green pants and funny looking hats. We’re used to hearing the squeals of boys and girls at the campground and the smells of campfires, and the sounds of people getting in and out of their cars. Little things that, without them, make it kind of eerie.”
Usually, when there is no one in the park, it’s after a storm has closed the island and made it unsafe for visitors. This time, however, there’s no physical devastation.
“We’re here to protect this awesome resource, Hunting Island, for South Carolina and Beaufort County,” Weatherford said. “But we’re about having people in the parks, and it’s just so weird having no one here.”