HORRY COUNTY, SC (WBTW) — Scientists expect climate change will cause more droughts and wildfires and there is a tree native to South Carolina that can withstand the climate pressures. However, it’s being threatened by development.

The Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve is a 10,000-acre sanctuary with biodiversity that rivals a rainforest with rows of Longleaf pine trees, a native tree to South Carolina that can handle the forecasted increase in wildfires.

“It’s more resilient to drought, it’s more resilient to fire, it’s more resilient to climate change,” Trapper Fowler, with the Coastal Conservation League said.

Longleaf pines not only survive fires, but they can also slow the spread.

The problem is the longleaf pine’s population dwindled due to logging. As more areas develop, there are fewer places to grow new trees because they need prescribed burns. 

“This place is under threat because of some proposed development around this preserve and one of them is a hospital,” Fowler said.

Fowler said a hospital is one of the most spoke sensitive areas when it comes to prescribed burns.

Conway Medical Center plans to build a new hospital along International Drive near the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve.  The hospital needs one more vote of approval by Horry County Council and a certificate of need approval by DHEC. ​

Horry County’s Imagine 2040 plan discourages development near Lewis Ocean Bay to allow prescribed burns and protect the county from flooding.

CMC sent News13 a statement saying, “Conway Medical Center (CMC) continues to actively work with our engineers and site planners to ensure that we effectively utilize the property while respecting the environment and maintaining its natural habitat and beauty. CMC will maintain a landscaping and architecture plan that will blend into the natural setting while creating a natural buffer to any neighboring property. While the site is more than 350 acres, we have designed a facility that would be primarily located on 35 to 40 acres of that property.”

The hospital also sent News13 highlights of the project which include using environmentally sustainable materials, no wetlands encroachment, and the hospital location is situated on the property to use natural wetlands as a distance barrier to minimize smoke infiltration and wildfire vulnerability.

Horry County planning director David Jordan believes the hospital is a better alternative. 

“If a developer bought it today. A home builder could get somewhere between 2,700 to 3,500 houses on that track,” Jordan said.

The demand for thousands of homes in the Carolina Forest area is there. Jordan said building permits have doubled county-wide ​in the last two years and a lot of that growth comes from Carolina Forest.

“In 1997 Carolina Forest was a forest. There’s not that much left as you can see from aerials,” Jordan said.

Jordan said places in Carolina Forest like the parks and recs and golf courses could likely stay untouched. He also said 3,800 acres of wildlife corridors in Carolina Forest won’t be developed.

Across Horry County, forests make up 63% of the land.

Francis Waite works with city and county planners to preserve that green space.​

“We look at, where can we plant trees and what makes sense, and a lot of times we’re thinking about green infrastructure and that’s, you know, how can we link green areas to each other,” said Waite, the urban and community forestry coordinator for the South Carolina Forestry Commission.

Horry County Council recently passed a new landscape and buffer ordinance which encourages developers to leave existing trees and build subdivisions off the roads.

Russell Hubright, the forest chief with the South Carolina Forest Commission said the vast majority of forestland in the state is privately owned.

“About 88% of the forest land in South Carolina is privately owned. There are like 13 million acres. That’s a lot of just in private hands,” said Hubright.

He said incentives work better than regulations when it comes to keeping trees in the state.

Hubright said the forest industry is a self-regulating one where logging companies refuse to work with bad actors and landowners are motivated to not develop their land.

“If you don’t have a law against cutting trees and I can harvest those trees and pay my taxes, make an income for my family, have a place to hunt and fish then I’m incentivized to keep it in a forested condition,” said Hubright.

Keeping forests is crucial. When it comes to combating climate change, experts say the simple answer is trees.