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Open Space Institute and State of South Carolina Release Master Plan to Create New Black River Water Trail & Park Network

Image Credit: Mac Stone

CHARLESTON, S.C. (June 16, 2022) – The Open Space Institute (OSI), the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (SCPRT), and community partners today announced the release of the community-driven Black River Water Trail & Park Network Master Plan, furthering a multi-year collaborative effort aimed at reconnecting residents of Williamsburg and Georgetown Counties to the State Scenic Black River, providing critical flood mitigation for riverside communities, and boosting local tourism.

The master plan is designed around the new Black River Initiative, a 70-mile-long riverine network of 12 local, state, and private parks connected by a recreational water trail along the river between the towns of Kingstree and Georgetown. The new park network includes South Carolina’s first new state park in nearly 20 years, the state’s first-ever riverine park, and the first state park in this majority Black region of the state.

Release of the master plan coincides with the announcement that OSI is donating two additional riverfront properties, totaling more than 2,000 acres, to SCPRT to improve public access to the river. The donations build on OSI’s previous acquisition and donation of the network’s first parcel to SCPRT in April 2021, which set the stage for a year-long community outreach and planning process that culminated in the release of this master plan.

“The Black River Initiative is nothing short of transformational,” explained Dr. Maria Whitehead, Vice President of Land in the Southeast for OSI, one of the lead architects of the effort. “With nearly 9,000 acres dedicated to parkland and a now community-driven master plan offering every outdoor amenity under the sun, we are reconnecting and reimaging this mighty river by tapping its beauty, its ecological value, and its potential to create a world-class tourism destination.”

The 12 strategically located park sites wind through two counties, extending 70 miles from the town of Kingstree, almost to the confluence of the Black River with the Pee Dee River, just north of Georgetown. Another 16,000 acres of private land protected by conservation easements grace the river’s edge.

Image Credit: Erin Pate, Butler Cypress Preserve

In a statement of regional support for the project, Williamsburg and Georgetown Counties and two riverfront towns, Kingstree and Andrews, recently passed resolutions in support of the Black River Park Network.

Master Plan Process & New Land Additions to Future Park

Specifically, the master plan focuses on a dozen strategically located park sites including the three properties secured and donated by OSI, as well as another riverfront property soon to be donated by The Nature Conservancy.

Over the course of the master planning process, outreach was aimed at incorporating local input to better understand what residents, businesses, and area officials want in their parks; to guide decision-making; and to fully maximize the recreational, economic, and environmental benefits the park network can provide. The process generated public comments from nearly 1,500 people that helped to shape the master plan.

“Our goal for this new state park is to give the people of Williamsburg, Georgetown and surrounding counties the most and best access possible to their beautiful stretch of the Black River,” says Dale Threatt-Taylor, executive director, The Nature Conservancy in South Carolina. “Black River conservation partners are putting together the puzzle pieces of a park that all South Carolinians will be proud of, that will drive eco-tourism dollars and that will help protect this area from floods.”

Other parks in the Black River network include Town of Kingstree’s Black River Landing; the privately owned, publicly available Black River Cypress Preserve; The Nature Conservancy’s Black River Preserve; and Georgetown County’s Rocky Point Community Forest.

'The Black River Experience'

The Black River Initiative is a community-inspired vision to establish a new recreational water trail connecting a growing network of public lands, along 70 miles of a beloved South Carolina river. Visit the OSI-produced Story Map to learn more about the initiative.

Visit the Story Map

Improving Recreational Connections

The newly completed master plan calls for the creation of amenities including camping options, picnic shelters for group events, hiking trails and boardwalks, restrooms, and a visitor center. It includes improved access to the river for fishing and swimming, and a water trail for paddlers to explore the beauty of the river from one point to another. Unique experiences such as paddle-up platform campsites and flood-resilient treehouse accommodations are also included.

The quiet, meandering Black River, banked by ancient cypress trees, feels remote and wild, yet remarkably this park network is within 100 miles of 40 percent of the state’s population and an easy hour drive from tourist-meccas such as Charleston and Myrtle Beach.

Image Credit: Dana Beach, the Open Space Institute

“We’ve seen a remarkable increase in demand for parks and public recreation opportunities,” said Paul McCormack, director, South Carolina State Park Service. “For its public access component alone, the Black River Park Network and its plan are coming at an ideal time. This park is going to improve the health and wellbeing of the region’s residents and visitors for generations to come. We are honored to be trusted with this remarkable resource.”

“As designed, a visitor can spend a few hours picnicking or hiking at one of the sites,” states Gates Roll, owner of Black Water Outside, a local guide service. “Or, for the more adventurous, put a kayak in at Kingstree and spend a week paddling down to Rocky Point stopping and camping at the many park sites along the way. There is simply nothing like it in South Carolina, and I can’t wait.”

Reducing Local Flooding Threats

In addition to the terrific recreational and economic potential the new network holds, leaders herald the project for its important flood-prevention benefits since undeveloped riverfront land is an important tool in reducing the costly and deadly impacts associated with increasingly stronger and more frequent storms.

“Undeveloped mature floodplains act as natural sponges of floodwaters, absorbing and slowing the movement of water,” said Ben Duncan, chief resilience officer, South Carolina Office of Resilience. “When conserved on a landscape scale, the park properties, along with other protected lands, will provide a natural buffer against catastrophic flooding for nearby communities and prevent additional construction of homes within the floodplain. By protecting the land along the river, we have the tremendous opportunity to save area residents and businesses from the devastation that results from extreme flooding events that are becoming more and more frequent.”

Additionally, permanently protected, water-storing floodplains save money by reducing flood insurance costs through the FEMA’s Community Rating System program, avoiding costs for emergency services to communities and avoiding damage to public and private property.

Expanding Economic Opportunities

The park network is expected to serve as a springboard for economic progress in one of the most economically challenged and overlooked areas of the state. From the build-out of the state park system to recreational tourism, the project offers a range of economic opportunities in one of the most economically challenged areas of the state.

After working for 30 years with small, rural towns all over the country, Greenville-based regional planning expert Tripp Muldrow is optimistic that the Black River project will create enormous economic opportunities for the residents and businesses of Georgetown and Williamsburg counties, and beyond.

"In a state where most of the financial benefits of tourism flow to coastal resort towns, the prospect of this recreational network could be a complete economic gamechanger by bringing a spotlight and funding to these small, rural, inland communities," said Muldrow, a fellow of the American Institute for Certified Planners.

Some have already seen an uptick in visitors. “The Black River is becoming more and more popular,” notes Crystal Morris, owner of Tasteful Creations Catering in Andrews who prepares boxed lunches for paddlers. “In just a year my small local business has expanded three-fold. Everybody who visits the river asks the same three questions – ‘Where can we eat, where can we stay, and when can we come back?”

Protecting Cultural Resources

One of the guiding values of the project is to better understand, protect, and interpret the cultural resources along the river. The character of the Black River is defined by its local history and culture, its historic places, and the generational impacts on the region. The recent history of the Black River from Colonial times until present, which includes fascinating Revolutionary and Civil War battles, will be an important component of future park and water trail interpretation.

However, to support the less understood pre-Colonial history, several of South Carolina’s Tribes, conservation organizations and university partners are working in collaboration with SCPRT’s staff archeologist through a working group. Together, the partners are focused on identifying and protecting Indigenous cultural resources along the river and representing the interest of local tribes in stewarding park properties and contributing to their interpretation.

Funding Details

Based on a phased five-year park build out, SCPRT estimates that the park network infrastructure will cost approximately $45 million. The park network’s advocates are actively pursuing park infrastructure funding. Funding sources include but are not limited to dollars approved by the South Carolina Legislature to support the project through SCPRT’s budget, South Carolina’s Office of Resilience, federal programs within the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, the COVID-relief American Rescue Plan Act, and private donors.

“I have never seen such widespread, bipartisan support for a project,” states Tom Mullikin, chairman, South Carolina Floodwater Commission. “I am confident that working together we will find the funding, build it, and deliver a world class park for the people of South Carolina. In more than four decades working with projects around the world, I have never been associated with a more important and indescribably beautiful project.”

The most recent land acquisitions for the Black River Initiative were completed through the leadership of the Open Space Institute and The Nature Conservancy, with funding from the SC Conservation Bank, North American Conservation Act, National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant Program, Knobloch Family Foundation, Butler Conservation Fund via The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Alliance, The Darla Moore Foundation, and other private donors.

Funding for the master plan was provided by the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the Francis P. Bunnelle Foundation, Judith Haskell Brewer Fund, DSM Nutritional Products, Hilda and Jon Flamholtz, Open Space Institute, The Nature Conservancy, and anonymous donors. 

The plan was produced by project consultant Earth Design, which invited input from the South Carolina Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Clemson University, and the National Park Service.

Black River Water Trail and State Park Master Plan Steering Committee

The Master Plan Steering Committee was led by SCPRT, the Open Space Institute, The Nature Conservancy, and the Winyah Rivers Alliance in partnership with American Rivers, Black River Cypress Preserve, Black Scenic River Advisory Council, Ducks Unlimited, Georgetown County, National Parks Service, Town of Andrews, Town of Kingstree, Georgetown County, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Waccamaw COG, and Williamsburg County.

For more information about the Black River Water Trail, visit http://openspaceinstitute.org/blackriver.

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