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Connecting to South Carolina's Black River

Photo Credit: The News-Kingstree

South Carolina’s Black River is one of the greatest and least known natural treasures on the East Coast. Its biological diversity is unsurpassed, while its history of human occupation is both tragic and noble. And now, the Open Space Institute’s (OSI) acquisition of more than 300 riverfront acres is on track to become South Carolina’s first new state park in 15 years, its first riverine park, and the anchor to a larger effort to reconnect local communities to the majestic Black River.

As the name implies, the river is a “blackwater” river — emerging from the coastal plain and fed by rainfall and natural springs, its banks are lined with stirring ancient cypress and tupelo trees that clean the river while infusing its translucent waters with dark, organic tannins.

The river and its forests support rare and charismatic species including swallow-tailed kites, wood storks, and prothonotary warblers, while the pinelands support colonies of endangered red- cockaded woodpeckers and flatwoods salamanders. Rare plants with wild names like Carolina birds- in-a-nest and American featherfoil decorate the dense understory vegetation, while blue grosbeaks sing in the canopy.

The small, rural, predominantly African American communities along the river revere and celebrate their connection to the Black River. For centuries, the river was a conduit for economic vitality, spanning from the early 1700s Native American trading posts to the prosperous antebellum water-dependent rice industry. Today, local towns struggling with increasing poverty rates and shrinking populations, once again regard the river and its recreational promise as a source of hope and renewal.

“OSI’s protection of the Black River is vitally important to our families and our future," says Ray Funnye, Director of Georgetown County's Department of Public Services. "For too long, this region and its wonderful people and beauty have been overlooked. We are hopeful that this new, transformative park network and water trail will serve a as beacon of economic optimism, regional pride, and a renewed commitment to saving the truly special Black River.”

Over the past five years, OSI has been a leader in protecting key properties to improve public access along the Black River. Working with The Nature Conservancy and local partners, OSI reclaimed Rocky Point Community Forest — a segregation-era park in the river’s lower section — setting the stage for the larger, more expansive project of transforming the Black River.

“What started as the restoration of a decades- old park and gaining river access, blossomed into a vision for the Black River Park Network and Water Trail — a 70-mile, 4,000-acre, multi-site riverine conservation and recreation corridor,” says OSI’s project-lead Dr. Maria Whitehead.

In 2020 OSI and partners took the next big step, acquiring the “Hinds-Canada” property, which is set to become the first state park property on the river, and will serve as the river’s western access point. The 310-acre property will also provide other amenities such as trails, bank fishing, picnic areas, and camping.

“Not only will the Black River Park Network and Water Trail be our first new park in 15 years, but it also promises to be a nationally celebrated river- based attraction,” says South Carolina Department of Environmental Conservation State Park director, Paul McCormack. “We are grateful to OSI, The Nature Conservancy, and local community leaders for their commitment to stewardship as plans develop to protect this incredible natural resource and create more opportunities for local South Carolinians and visitors to access, enjoy, and quickly come to cherish the Black River.”

With support from the Bunnelle Foundation, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the Judith Haskell Brewer Fund, and partner organizations, OSI helped convene the 25-member Black River Master Plan Steering Committee. Partners raised more than $90,000 to support the planning and community engagement process that is identifying local preferences for access points and amenities, including trails, shelters, and campsites.

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