A Clemson Treasure

By David Van Lear
Photography by Josh Wilson

Experimental Forest offers a wealth of opportunities for research and recreation

Today, Clemson University is surrounded on three sides by the Experimental Forest, an integral part of the University and an asset that helps make Clemson unique and wonderful.

Former president Jim Barker described the Experimental Forest this way in 2011: “A first step is to begin thinking of Clemson as a 17,000-acre campus ideally situated for teaching and learning about environmental sustainability, biodiversity, life sciences and many other fields.”

No other university in the country can claim a forest of this size and quality, especially one adjacent to campus. It helps provide the air we breathe, protects our watersheds from soil erosion, provides habitat for wildlife and plant species, and offers a myriad of recreational opportunities.

Forestland around Clemson has undergone major changes over the nearly 250 years since noted botanist and naturalist William Bartram first explored the area in 1775. A different kind of forest provided for the needs of the Cherokee, who had occupied the land for hundreds of years. Open woodlands and savannas with grassy understories on upland areas were interspersed with Native American villages and agricultural fields.

Beginning in the mid-1700s, the Cherokee were forced from their ancestral home, and in 1816, they ceded their last lands in South Carolina to the U.S. government.

Open woodlands gave way to small subsistence farms, and the land suffered from soil abuse. Farmers then cleared more forests and started the same cycle on new land. By the early 20th century, researchers estimate that as much as
9 inches of fertile topsoil had been lost to erosion. Many farmers turned to textile mills or migrated north for jobs.

The rebirth of today’s Experimental Forest began during the Great Depression with the enactment of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program, which enabled the federal government to buy submarginal farmland. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management took over responsibility for managing much of this acreage. The government requested entities, such as municipalities and universities, to submit proposals for management of the remaining submarginal lands.

Clemson professor of agriculture George Aull submitted a proposal, and in 1939, the government leased almost 30,000 acres of worn-out farmlands to Clemson to be managed for natural resource conservation, education, research and demonstration. During the early years of the lease, the federal government’s Works Progress Administration built the Issaqueena Dam and began planting trees and building recreational facilities.

    170 species of birds, 65 species of amphibians and reptiles
    50 species of mammals, 25 species of fish
    48 species of trees, including 3 state champions
    17 species of vines, 8 species of orchids and numerous wildflowers
    Over 30 “species of concern”

    100 miles of shoreline on Lake Hartwell
    More than 200 acres of wetlands
    Over 200 miles of streams and 10 waterfalls
    More than 100 miles of trails
    Lake Isaqueena, a 135-acre lake in the north Experimental Forest

In 1947, a forester, Norbert Goebel, was hired to oversee management of the land. Pine and hardwood trees were planted, terraces and bridges were built, and hiking trails were established. The land was becoming a forest again. Wildlife — with the help of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources — was coming back, and streams were running clear again.

In 1954, the government deeded ownership of the 30,000-acre property, to the University, with certain restrictions — the land would be used forever for public purposes such as conservation, education and recreation. It could not be commercially developed. If these restrictions were violated, the land would revert to the federal government.

The forestlands subsequently became the Clemson Experimental Forest, offering a wealth of recreational opportunities to both students and the community at large, including biking, hiking, horseback riding, fishing, hunting, swimming and bird watching.

One of the most important aspects of the forest is its convenient location, only minutes away from campus. Classes representing a broad range of departments use the forest as an outdoor classroom and laboratory. Researchers use it for studies ranging from environmental science, forest management, forest ecology, wildlife biology and management, hydrology, and soils. Public service activities can utilize both the campus and forest with ease.

The Experimental Forest is not only an invaluable resource for education and research but also a campus treasure, one that offers enjoyment for every member of the Clemson community. 

Official 24”x36” CEF Trail Map is available for purchase ($10) at the Fran Hanson Discovery Center located at the South Carolina Botanical Garden.

David Van Lear is a professor emeritus of forestry of Clemson University.

20 replies
  1. Lyman Holland says:

    The article said that initially 30,000 acres were involved and that Clemson now holds 17,000 acres. What happened to the Difference ? 13.000 acres ? Or is part of that now underwater of the lakes?

    • Nancy Spitler says:

      This from Dave Van Lear: The lake took about 8,000 acres from the forest. The remaining 5,000 acres is in agricultural land. So, 17000 plus 8,000 plus 5,000 equals 30,000.

      • Lyman Holland says:

        Thank you for answering my question. Was just curious about the difference. Looking the map include with the article figured a chunk of it was covered by the lakes. Good to know all of it is being put to good use.

    • Nancy Spitler says:

      This from Russell Hardee: We are working to get a logging contractor on site as soon as possible. We have had weather delays further contribute to delays. Our goal is to salvage the storm damage and also complete some much needed timber stand improvement while the area is still closed. It will be a slow process but it should be completed this winter.

  2. Larry Walker says:

    I still recall some outdoor forestry labs in the 60’s. We planted trees, thinned overstocked forests, made plans for wildlife habitat, and had some great recreational outings 🐟🚶🏻🍻
    It’s a great asset for the university.

  3. Paul K Gable says:

    I had heard that a reason Clemson could not sell the property was because at one time there were gold mines on the property given to Clemson by the Federal Government and the government retained mineral rights to the property and to meet this requirement a land swap was the only to exchange this property.

    • Ross Holt says:

      Yes, there are old mine shafts on forest property. Went down into one 7 years ago, but they blocked it up 3 years ago due to white-nose syndrome concerns with bats. Was really neat to see.

    • Nancy Spitler says:

      This from Russell Hardee: I’ve heard rumors but have not seen any information in our files. There are several hand dug pits or small caves on the Forest that were historically used for some type of mineral harvest. The Federal Govt did retain mineral rights when the land was conveyed, but that was a fairly common practice, especially considering the escalation of the Cold War.

  4. Betty Baldwin says:

    Thank you for this great piece on the Clemson Experimental Forest David. You can certainly experience the history of our country right here in this piece of land that is testament to the New Deal. Along with forestry and recreation there are remnants of old homesteads, a slave cemetery and important Cherokee landmarks. Currently Dr. George Askew is supporting many graduate research projects on and about the the Forest with a hope that from these might come a strategy for the future of this incredible asset.

  5. Craig Campbell says:

    Hi David,
    Does the George H. Aull Natural Area still exist?
    I have been watching the destruction along 187 and it now looks like they have bulldozed and burned the whole area. Plus it already looked like that new trailer park behind the waffle house was built right up to it, if not in to it.
    It’s so sad. When I first moved here I was told that that was one of the last stands of virgin forest in SC. I can’t believe CU would sell that for development.

    • David Van Lear says:

      Craig, Thank you for your question. Although I have not been to the Aull Natural Area for a few years, I am certain it is still there. The Clemson property cannot be developed, according to restrictions in the deed. If Clemson tried to commercially develop any of its property, that land would revert back to the federal government.

      • Craig Campbell says:

        Thank you David and Nancy.
        It does not technically border 187, but the times I went there I parked just off 187 and walked up that unpaved road to get to it. You would have to literally climb over or around the yellow trucks to get down there now. It looks like that latest clearing goes awfully far back, so if the development borders the preserve that’s not good either.
        I will have to make it a point to check it out on foot soon.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *