All this time, everybody has just assumed the Lowcountry was full of tree huggers.

But maybe we've been barking up ... you get the idea.

Last week, a committee of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments voted to recommend the clear-cutting of most trees in the Interstate 26 median between Summerville and I-95.

A lot of folks don't want to see this happen. The Legislature took the decision out of the hands of the state Department of Transportation and gave it to local governments for that very reason.

But these representatives of local government decided that all the trees along 23 of the 30 miles should be cut down for safety.

Well gentlemen, don't start your chainsaws just yet.

This isn't a done deal, and it's not going to happen - not if a couple of guys named Larry have anything to do with it.

Safety first

The DOT has gotten $5 million from the feds to make the I-26 death zone a safer place.

That is a noble, necessary goal.

In four years, that 30-mile patch of I-26 has been the scene of nearly 2,000 accidents. There were more than 700 injuries, and 44 deaths. It is by far the most dangerous stretch of interstate in South Carolina.

The trees in the median of the death zone get most of the blame, because the majority of those fatalities have come as a result of people hitting them.

"It is a safety concern," says Highway Commissioner Jim Rozier.

Rozier had opposed clear-cutting, but has since talked to several families of people lost in the death zone, and it affected him. All those trees, he says, aren't worth one kid's life.

He's right.

The other side will tell you, however, that there's a compromise - but it isn't as cheap. The DOT wants to cut down all the trees and install a cable barrier to catch and stop cars. Critics would like them to put barriers on both sides of the highway, leaving at least some trees in the middle. Sen. Larry Grooms, who penned the budget proviso that gave the COG jurisdiction here, is one of those folks.

"I wish the COG had asked DOT to do something other than take the easy way out," Grooms says.

Grooms notes that the state has barriers on both sides of interstate medians in other parts of the state - though admittedly not for 30 miles at a clip.

Without those trees, he says, the gateway to the Lowcountry is going to look like a generic road in Anywhere, USA.

"We deserve both safety and beauty," Grooms says.

Make like a tree...

Dorchester County Councilman Larry Hargett was one of the votes against this plan.

He says his constituents oppose the clear-cutting 2-to-1, and besides, the trees are not the problem - the road is.

Most of the accidents are concentrated in four places along the route. The problem, Hargett says, is that the ground drops off quickly beyond the left lane in those places. Cars that veer off the road have no chance to get back on, and most end up hitting a tree. It's a flaw in the road's design, and would cost plenty to fix.

Hargett says it makes sense to remove the trees in those areas. That's a good compromise, because everyone should agree - tree huggers or not - that we don't need any more deaths.

This controversy has gotten a bit more intense than it needs to be. The clear-cut crowd has actually done a little character assassination on the trees, noting that they are just scrub pine - not hardwoods. And they say the trees will have to be cut for an I-26 widening anyway.

That's a good point. But Grooms, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, says that needed widening is not even on the DOT's radar yet. It could be years, even decades, before that happens. Officially, DOT hopes it will happen a little sooner.

Grooms and Hargett are working to draw a large crowd to the public hearing on this plan, which will happen sometime in January before a full vote of the Council of Governments. There are between three and four dozen voting members of the COG, depending on who shows up, so anything can happen.

Consider it a challenge, environmentalists. It's one thing to hug a tree, it's another to actually save one.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com