Trees covering one of the Columbia area's most significant natural landmarks could fall to the chainsaws of loggers under a little-known legal agreement.
Although most of Cook's Mountain is protected from development by a conservation easement, the 2004 deal gives the mountain's owner the explicit right to harvest timber valued at more than $1 million, records show.
With the mountain being sold, the new owners could more aggressively log the land near Eastover than their counterparts in the past, said Yancey McLeod, who formerly managed the property for a group of long-time owners.
McLeod said areas vulnerable to logging could include extensive hardwood swamps at the mountain's base and wooded land on the slope that is home to unusual plants.
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"In my humble opinion, it would be sinful to clear those areas," McLeod said. "They are just remarkably beautiful."
One of the highest points in the state's flat central region, the 374-foot Cook's Mountain is covered by tall pines, broad oaks, large gum trees and other species native to South Carolina. The mountain rises high above the nearby Wateree River, offering sweeping views of the flood plain of Richland and Sumter counties. The property consists of about 1,200 acres, all under conservation easement except the top 30 acres.
Its owners, a group of Columbia businessmen that once included McLeod, protected the property and allowed generations of school children to tour their private preserve. In the past year, the business group bought out McLeod and agreed to sell Cook's Mountain to a landfill company for $5.1 million.
McLeod and Richland County Councilman Greg Pearce said they have learned that a local person is seeking to acquire Cook's Mountain from Republic Services Inc. after the company's transaction is complete.
Republic Services, a national landfill company with headquarters in Arizona, said it has no deal to sell the property to any private landowner, and in fact, has not closed a deal to acquire the property itself.
Either way, changes in ownership have fueled speculation about whether the public will continue to have access to the private nature center - and whether the trees will remain.
"I can't answer that question, whether it's a good thing or not for a private person to own it," Pearce said.
Some are urging the county to step in and buy the property.
McLeod said he and his business partners, who acquired Cook's Mountain in the 1980s, never intended to extensively log the land or cut down significant stands of trees found throughout the site, even though they retained that right. Trees have been harvested before to create open areas for wildlife, but the cutting has not been on a wide scale, McLeod said.
Republic Services did not directly address whether it would seek to log or clear cut any part of the site. A February 2011 real estate appraisal said timber production and recreation are the highest and best uses of the land under the conservation easement. The appraisal valued the timber at $1.09 million.
Republic spokeswoman Peg Mulloy said she understands the conservation agreement requires the owners to follow "best management practices."
That typically means protecting steams by keeping shrubs, grass and other buffers between cleared areas and waterways. Many properties with conservation easements limiting development allow for some timber harvesting, but unlike with Cook's Mountain, landowners usually hold onto the property for their personal use.
It's unlikely the entire site could be clear-cut because the conservation agreement includes a section saying Cook's Mountain must be preserved, according to Ducks Unlimited, which has agreed to oversee the conservation easement. Ducks Unlimited must be notified of plans to cut trees.
Still, the site contains bottomland hardwoods that might be attractive for their timber value, McLeod said. Those species include black gums and tupelo gum cypresses. The gum and cypress swamps make up several hundred acres of the 1,200-acre Cook's Mountain property, McLeod said. One tree is 21 feet in circumference, he said.
Bob Guild, a state Sierra Club official and environmental lawyer, said the trees that most need protection at Cook's Mountain are older hardwoods in swamp bottoms. Parts of the mountain contain planted pines that were grown specifically for harvest, he said.
"If timber rights extend only to the managed portion of the site that already is heavily altered by human management, such as planted pines, that is one thing," Guild said. "But if the right to cut timber extends to bottoms, where waterfowl habitat is, that's another."
Guild and Pearce noted that issues involving the future of Cook's Mountain should be kept separate from Republic's effort to keep its nearby landfill open for three more decades.
Speculation is that Republic, which agreed to buy Cook's Mountain last summer, will try to sell it to the county in exchange for extending the life of the landfill past its scheduled closure date of 2018.