Sassafras Mountain

South Carolina

May 2013

Duke Energy owns a lot of land around these parts.  Duke is the largest electric power holding company in the United States, and they claim to supply energy to more than seven million customers throughout 104 000 square miles of this part of the country.  In 2004, they sold a parcel of Sassafras Mountain to the Department of Natural Resources.  A few years later, The Conservation Fund donated another five acres on the North Carolina side, thus clearing the way for development of the summit area.  A number of improvements have recently been made surrounding this unique place in South Carolina.  The Clayton Highway was paved, for example, and they built an observation platform.  They’ve got other ideas too, which haven’t been accomplished yet, like handicap accessibility, more viewpoints and bathrooms.  (On this trip, if you can imagine the horror, I had to pee in the woods.)

This big deal project was kicked off by a U S Senator from South Carolina and other hot shots with titles.  The announcement ceremony featured phrases like, “…preserve and protect the God-given beauty of our state,” and “making [the summit] more accessible.”  A director of something-or-other actually said, “…preserving the awe-inspiring viewshed surrounding Sassafras Mountain….”


The Foothills Trail courses right through the high point.  For years in its undeveloped state, most visitors to the summit were hikers and backpackers.  Now with development, officials hope that tons more people will come visit.  By motor vehicle.  It’s gonna get crowded here.

For Lisa and me, it is clear that the parking area, 300 feet down from the summit, is far more popular than the high point itself.  At the summit, we have a birdwatcher sighting…

…and a family of four.  Every other critter, likely all residents, is non-human.  At the parking area, I lose count of how many people drive up in their cars, walk the 300 feet to the observation platform and then leave.

The construction of this platform, or “overlook” as they call it, was recently completed.  From the deck, you can see the Blue Ridge Mountains and a number of lakes, the Jocassee, the Keowee, Lake Hartwell.

We treehuggers sometimes get kvetchy with the idea and practice of logging and harvesting of timber, the clear cutting and denuding of forests and in general, the termination and dispatching of healthy trees.  Our sometimes naive idea is that all natural woodland should be left alone, left natural, and that nothing that is powered by gasoline, electricity, steam, gravity or human muscle should change this non-linear world from its natural inclination to grow and balance itself.

On the other hand, the fact that someone else came in here and made a trail for us to walk upon is pretty hip.

Managing a forest isn’t all bad, and at times, while we don’t improve upon nature, we can guide some of the natural forces in beneficial ways.  Kind of like working with a bonsai tree.

It was those jolly Buddhists who came up with the idea of bonsai, the shaping of a miniature tree using gentle influence on the tree’s growth by lovingly manipulating the shape and direction of its parts, the pruning, cutting, winding and wrapping of training wire, the application of plastic and metal, the tweezing and pinching, all for the artistic good.  The tree can live nearly forever, it adds aesthetic beauty to this world and it inspires the gardener and anyone he or she can cajole into coming over to look at the tree.  The shape, texture and color all compliment one another.  It’s a synthesis of human creativity with the non-ceasing insistence of nature and the elements, expressed in meditative symphony.  Whew!

This is why I get pissed off when I see the lookout platform recently built on Sassafras Mountain.  I’m hoping that it is still a work in progress as the cutting of this area to build the platform is haphazard and ugly.  You get the idea of what they were trying to do, but they were pretty messy in doing it.  You may look out over the railing as I do, and retch with me.

About the time I finish my complaining, we are reminded of another project planned for the summit.  This one is a joint effort pulling in contributions from The Highpointers Club, Duke Energy, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Clemson University, the Foothills Trail Conference and others, according to Alan Zupan, of the South Carolina Geological Survey.  Pretty impressive consortium.  Wouldn’t it be splendid if our Congress could get together in such a manner.  Among other sources of funding, this group is seeking private donations through the sale of bricks, custom engraved, which will be laid at the summit.  Contributions of one hundred to one thousand dollars will be accepted.  Per brick.

At the time of our summiting, these bricks were to be the visible foundation of a 65-foot tall monstrosity of a tower to be erected at the high point.  It would cost about one million dollars.  Plans have changed however and the latest proposal it to erect a 15-foot platform.  Once it was decreed to clear cut the summit, which they did, then you would only need to ascend 15 feet to get the 360°, 50-mile view in every direction.

Since May of 2013 when we summited, everything above ground level in the photo of Lisa and me at the summit has been removed.  Everything that is green in the birdwatcher photo is gone too.  No trees, no foliage.  Probably no black throated green either.

We all like views.  We strive exceedingly, or pay great amounts of money to get these views.  I notice in a description of plans for the summit the phrase, “Until recently, this majestic view from atop South Carolina’s highest peak was obscured.”  This wording gives the impression that the author is annoyed that something bothersome like trees and natural growth are in the way of the view, obstructed by something we should remove.

The writer continues, “For decades, walls of… trees surrounded nearly every degree of the summit, insulating it from the world…”

Damned trees.

The idea was to clear the trees, all the hemlock and second growth mixed hardwood.  Yes, some of the trees had succumbed to the woolly adelgid but most had not.  Three acres were leveled and plans are to clear many more acres from the surrounding slopes.  All this destruction of naturally beautiful things is for the purpose of opening up a view of naturally beautiful things.  Just be sure not to look in the direction of the Duke Energy radio tower which will remain.

All the growth you see in the photograph is now gone.

There is a phrase that environmentalists and others use when talking about land use.  We want to avoid “loving to death” the places we visit.  When we try to preserve things we have not built, like Earth, we sometimes use the land beyond its capacity to accommodate the use.

It’s always a tradeoff.  One of the more benign places that reminds me of this conflict is when I come upon a trail register.  I want to see many names written in the log book, meaning that the area is getting used and appreciated.  The more people who use the land, the more likely it will get caretaker attention and funding.  On the other hand, I want to see few names, which means that the area is being allowed to breathe, to be on its own, and is likely more pristine and natural.

I’m sure the view from the top of Sassafras Mountain will be exceptional.  But the cost of making that view will be unreasonably high.

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