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Many coastal South Carolina outdoor and park sites struggle to reopen after Irma

September 19, 2017 GMT

The tree that stood in the ocean is down.

Tiffany Briley used to wake up at 4 a.m. to get to the boneyard beach at Botany Bay Plantation so she could photograph the iconic tree at sunrise in the surf. She cried in relief when she saw it still standing after Hurricane Matthew.

Last week, she saw from a helicopter that Tropical Storm Irma knocked it over.

Briley, a volunteer at the Botany Bay wildlife management area, felt it in the pit of her stomach.

“What really jarred me, the hammock island (on the causeway to the beach) is littered with thick debris. Trees are down all over the causeway,” she said.

The Botany Bay wildlife management area is one of a number of popular publicly owned outdoor recreation and hunting spots on the southern coast that were shredded or submerged by Irma earlier this month. Work is ongoing to clear them.

The storm wracked some of the areas just weeks after they re-opened following millions of dollars of repairs from the damage of Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

Among the sites are:

Hunting Island State Park, closed for the year.Edisto Beach State Park. Planning to re-open the beach for day use only in October. Beach camping remains closed for repairs.Botany Bay Plantation Wildlife Management Area on Edisto Island, planning to open incrementally as roads are cleared.Donnelley and Bear Island wildlife management areas, ACE Basin near Green Pond. Closed except for limited hunting. Opening incrementally as roads drain and are cleared. Check the website for daily updates.Francis Marion National Forest, north of Charleston. Opening incrementally. More than 25 forest roads still closed. Other closures include Wambaw Creek, Wambaw Cycle Trail, Boggey Head Rifle Range, Huger Boat Ramp. Check the website for daily updates.

The Irma damage was done just as the summer’s scorch and tourist traffic began to ease — a prime time for local visitors and just as the fall hunting season opened. The parks’ repairs aren’t expected to take too long or be that costly.

“A lot less damage has been done dollar-wise (than after Matthew). Water is the biggest with this one, so it’s more a matter of letting it dry out than costs,” said Duane Parrish, S.C. Parks, Recreation and Tourism director. After Matthew, the S.C. Legislature appropriated $2 million to PRT for repairs, he said.

Revenue from park fees won’t be too badly disrupted by Irma because the high tourism season is over, he said, and other parks brought in about $2 million more than budgeted.

The sites are among the state’s most popular outdoor destinations. Botany Bay alone drew more than 65,000 people in 2016 before Matthew shut it down in October. Campsite reservations at Hunting Island and Edisto Beach have to be made months in advance.

Botany Bay and Bear Island, a prime hunting ground, were the worst hit among sites managed by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

On Monday, water had just quit streaming across the Bear Island access road, said Dean Harrigal, a S.C. Department of Natural Resources regional wildlife coordinator. Last week, he rode an air boat down the road.

So much debris piled up on the Botany Bay beach causeway that staffers estimate it to be 2 to 3 feet thick, he said.

“We have a lot of heavy lifting to do,” Harrigal said.

Meanwhile, a number of popular sites made it through relatively well. Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge is open, as well as nearby Buck Hall Campground.

For Briley, the Botany Bay damage is a professional as well as personal loss, and not just for her. She is part-owner of Charleston Photography Tours, and she said visitors from across the country have visited to shoot the boneyard beach and its tree.

“Seeing it laying down was really painful,” she said. “But nature changes. You just appreciate it while you can.”