Over the Labor Day weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting Skeet Burris’ 1000-acre tree farm, Cypress Bay Plantation, in the pine woods of South Carolina’s coastal plain. It proved to be an exciting and impressive example of caring stewardship and multiple-use management of forestland for long-term softwood production, watershed protection, conservation of wildlife and wildlife habitat, and recreational use. It has included the creation of wetlands and ponds, wildlife food and shelter plots, and improving the forest aesthetics.
Skeet Burris, his wife Gail, and their youngest son, Charlie, reside in coastal Beaufort, South Carolina, where Skeet has a successful orthodontics practice. Skeet and Gail grew up in rural Tennessee and both are University of Tennessee graduates. With careers established in the Carolina Lowcountry and spending weekends boating, hunting, and fishing, Skeet decided some 20 years ago that he wanted his family to become forest landowners.
Existing plantations are seldom available or affordable. Some families are wealthy enough to hold their plantations generation after generation, in spite of a tax system seemingly designed to splinter landholdings and ecosystems into a patchwork of tiny fragmented plots. And when death taxes do force large, well-managed plantations onto the market, their prices are often stratospheric and their fate is often shopping malls or housing developments.
Skeet finally found an affordable cornerstone for his now spectacular plantation, some 40 miles inland in rural Hampton County near Cummings. In 1986 they purchased an abandoned, cut over, exhausted 100-acre farm, with dilapidated barns and shacks. The land was overgrown with dense thickets of short, stunted, crowded, bent, and twisted pine, gum, and maple–where once stately open pine-savannah forests had grown.
A Family’s Stewardship Vision
The family’s first step was to develop a vision statement for the land they had christened Cypress Bay Plantation. “Our vision is to develop an ordinary piece of land and, with a plan and a commitment to lots of hard work, create a tree farm that will serve as a model for other tree farmers.” Their vision included five principles: restoration, conservation, preservation, education, and perpetuation of the forests, multiple uses, and recreation to “ensure a sustainable forest which will be self supporting for generation after generation.” Skeet, Gail, Charlie, and their three older sons signed the document and hung it on the cabin wall.
The first year they began work on restoring and upgrading the buildings into serviceable barns and a magnificent cabin, highlighted by beautiful refinished heart-pine flooring. They also began clearing wildlife food plots out of the overgrown thickets and planting their first trees.
Over the years, the family was able to purchase additional parcels of land adjacent to their property. With some 21 individual acquisitions, Cypress Bay now totals 958 acres in fee. (Skeet also leases another 2,250 acres of surrounding lands in order to carry out a broad wildlife management plan for white-tailed deer, wild turkey and common bobwhite.)
Because the plantation is a multiple-use tree farm, the first task after preparing the ground–using a combination of bush-hogging, thinning, burning, herbicide treatment, and disking–was to start replanting the forests. Relying almost entirely on their own labor, the Burris family has planted over 112,000 trees. The predominant planting of 108,600 trees has been Longleaf and Loblolly pines, the dominant trees of the Southeastern forest ecosystem and the valuable timber trees of the region.
However, as the plantation is also being used for hunting, hundreds of oak trees of five species have been planted for the mast crops, including 449 Sawtooth Oaks, a non-native species that is attractive, fast-growing, and a very early producer of acorns. Additionally, scores of ornamental and fruiting trees have been planted for aesthetic purposes and for game and non-game species.
As the existing forests were slowly placed under management, Skeet made a special effort to preserve all the native Live Oaks–the giant Spanish Moss-festooned trees of the antebellum South. This involved removing the competing trees, to “release” the oaks to grow into towering, stately trees. Smaller Live Oaks are moved out of the forests into open areas, wildlife plots, and roadsides.
Wildlife and Beauty Hand-in-hand
There was no water on the property. To increase diversity and especially the wildlife and aesthetic values, 50 acres of ponds have been constructed, including fish ponds, greentree reservoirs, and seasonally planted and flooded duck ponds. Some 4,400 majestic Bald Cypress have been planted around and through the greentree reservoirs and along some of the smaller ponds, where they serve as shelter for wildlife and add beauty to the plantation.
In between the pine and oak woods, as well as the natural mixed pine-hardwood stands, a wide variety of wildlife food plots, firebreaks, and wildlife corridors have been created. Depending on what they are planted with, they can serve all those purposes.
A wide array of productive grasses, forbs, and shrubs are planted, as are grains, corn, and sunflowers to feed game and non-game species.
From the beginning, Skeet Burris has coordinated his efforts with a number of private wildlife associations. Joining the South Carolina Waterfowl Association’s Wood Duck project, he has erected 34 Wood Duck nestboxes, which are producing around 200 ducklings a year. Their Mallard project has released over 650 ducks, hoping to take shooting pressure off the migratory waterfowl that winter in the area. And Charlie and a local Beaufort County Boy Scout troop placed 20 bluebird boxes, which have produced over 100 young Eastern Bluebirds. Other birds have benefitted from the nest box program, with successful nestings of Hooded Mergansers, Eastern-Screech Owls, and Great Crested Flycatchers in the large boxes, and House and Carolina wrens and Prothonotary Warblers (the bird that was the undoing of Alger Hiss) in the small boxes. Skeet also erected a Purple Martin condominium by the large fish pond near the cabin, taking advantage of the birds’ voracious appetite for mosquitoes.
A drive or hike around the plantation is a wonderful visual and recreational experience. The forests, wildlife plantings, buffer zones, firebreaks, roads and trails, ponds and wetlands, have all been created with irregular boundaries and broad curves, avoiding straight lines and rows wherever possible. In the pines, modern thinning techniques are used to eliminate the artificiality of plantation rows, creating an overall mosaic of different shapes, ages, sizes, and types of forests, interspersed with a variety of wildlife habitats and food plots, and different types of wetlands and ponds.
Hunters Are Welcome . . . and Waiting
Working closely with such private conservation groups as Quail Unlimited, the Quality Deer Management Association, The National Wild Turkey Federation, and the South Carolina Waterfowl Association, Skeet is already generating top-rate income from his deer hunting leases, upland bird leases, and duck blind leases. His wildlife management practices have been so outstanding and are producing such quality hunting that he has people queuing up across the Southeast for the opportunity to obtain a lease.
It’s quite remarkable that Skeet, Gail, and their sons have turned abandoned, over-worked land into such a productive forest and wildlife “spectacular” in a mere dozen years. It is certainly a testimonial to the incentives that spring from ownership and family to create a vision for the future and your children and through hard work and enlightened stewardship, to pass the land on to future generations in better condition than you acquired it.
Recognition for the Burris family’s exemplary stewardship was quick to come. In 1989, three years after purchasing the land, Skeet had it under a written Forest Management Plan. Two years later he had become a certified tree farmer in the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) and was qualified to place the tree farm member’s signs on his property.
When the Burrises purchased the land, says Skeet, “All kinds of trash was lying around; it was just wiped out. The barns on the land had been left to decay as were the few trees that remained. The whole place was a total disaster–but it was affordable” . . . and it was theirs.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish,” Skeet said, quoting Proverbs 29:18. “I could visualize what I knew the land could become and that kept me focused.”
A mere nine years after purchasing an abandoned farm, Skeet and Gail Burris became the South Carolina Tree Farmers of the Year. The following year, 1996, they won Southern Regional Tree Farmer of the Year. The Burrises and Cypress Bay Plantation are an example for all landowners.
Now visitors, tree farmers, and wildlife managers come from all across the country to see and learn from this private conservation success story.