Becoming a 'key player in making conservation projects happen'
CHARLESTON, SC (July 9, 2019)—After more than 30 years of leading kayak and boat tours outside Charleston, South Carolina, Chris Crolley never tires of seeing his clients awed by the beauty of nature. “I can tell them about a pelican all day long, but until they see one splash with a big fish in its beak…then they are moved,” he says. “Experiences like that keep me in business.”
As a small-business owner whose livelihood depends on clean air and clean water, Crolley was enthusiastic to hear that the headwaters of the Wando River, where he leads his tours, had been permanently protected by the Open Space Institute. Conservation of the Fairlawn Plantation property on the banks of the Wando, just outside of Charleston, fulfills one of the area’s singularly important conservation goals: protection of the Francis Marion National Forest and its longleaf pine ecosystem.
With a thick carpet of pine needles, and the sun streaking through its tall, straight long-leaf pine trees, a walk through the Francis Marion is enchanting. Beyond the allure of its natural beauty, the 290,000-acre forest is also critical in the effort to protect and restore the longleaf pine habitat, one of the most biodiverse and threatened ecosystems in North America. A fire-dependent ecosystem, the Francis Marion is home to more than 400 species of mammals, birds, and reptiles; and approximately 1,600 species of plants.
The newly conserved parcel is the latest of OSI’s five Fairlawn conservation projects totaling more than 6,000 acres. Not so long ago, Fairlawn — located less than five minutes from Mount Pleasant, one of the fastest-growing municipalities on the East Coast — had been in danger of being subdivided and developed. Rallying to action, OSI worked with local partners and devised a multi-year plan to preserve this critical landscape.
“OSI’s success with our partners in conserving Fairlawn and protecting the Francis Marion National Forest came out of our commitment to the unique and endangered landscape, our transactional experience, our partnerships, and our ability to identify the funds to make it happen,” explains Nate Berry, senior vice president for OSI who manages the organization’s South Carolina program. “Plus,” he adds, “we’re resourceful.”
The story of OSI’s protection efforts in the Francis Marion is the culmination of a years-long effort — and the use of innovative conservation strategies and funding sources that have garnered a succession of land-protection victories benefitting communities throughout South Carolina.
In the South Carolina Lowcountry, OSI has been at the center of many major conservation projects and is working with local agencies and partners to protect natural resources in a region where development pressures are high.
The OSI projects “are a conservation ‘win’ in the truest sense,” says Rick Lint, forest supervisor for the Francis Marion National Forest. “With the pace of growth in this region, we need to be able to secure funding and move quickly to save critical landscapes. OSI has been able to save the most threatened places, just in time, using innovative funding strategies and collaborative partnerships.”
Over the past four years, OSI has protected more than 11,500 threatened acres in South Carolina — a majority of which were secured using wetlands mitigation dollars made available when private businesses or government agencies disturb existing wetland areas while advancing projects such as highway expansions or the siting of new factories or plants. In addition to helping to reign in fast-paced urban sprawl, these conservation projects are helping communities adapt to climate-related flooding and rising sea levels; restoring sensitive habitats; and safeguarding drinking water.
Working with the likes of The Boeing Company and Mercedes — as well as the South Carolina Department of Transportation, the South Carolina Department of Commerce, and the South Carolina Ports Authority — OSI has become a regional conservation leader, matching high-value conservation projects with available mitigation funding sources. Since completing its first Fairlawn deal with partners in 2014, OSI has helped guide additional investment in the region to the tune of $30 million.
“From protecting wetlands and water resources, to restoring wildlife habitat and pursuing natural solutions to fight climate change, mitigation dollars are helping to make critical conservation projects a reality throughout South Carolina,” says OSI’s Nate Berry.
And for the local businessman, Crolley, he sees real value in robust partnerships that are saving South Carolina’s precious natural resources. “This is a great model to show that industry and the environment are not exclusive. Just look at the conservation of Fairlawn through the use of mitigation funds,” he says.
Beyond the Francis Marion National Forest, in the heart of the Ashley River Plantation District, just eight miles from downtown Charleston, residential developers in early 2018 were planning 150 houses on 80 low-lying acres known as Kings Grant. Once a pristine tidal marsh, the property had been backfilled to create a now-defunct golf course.
'OSI has gone from an effective, little-known organization to a key player in making these conservation projects happen.' OSI's Nate Berry
With mitigation funding from the Palmetto Railways Naval Base Intermodal Facility and the WestEdge Foundation’s WestEdge Discover District, OSI stepped in to conserve the “Kings Grant” tract, launching the largest saltwater restoration project in the history of the state. With the acquisition, restoration of the wetlands can begin, and the marsh can play an important role in buffering inland communities from storms and rising sea levels.
Meanwhile, a section of the property near the wetlands will become a public park, walking trail, and canoe and kayak launch that is part of the Ashley River Blue Trail, owned and operated by the City of North Charleston.
Saving the Saluda
OSI is also using mitigation dollars to protect water quality and increase public access in the South Carolina Piedmont. A 2018 project conserved nearly 1,750 acres of pristine lands in the Saluda River watershed adjacent to the Belfast Wildlife Management Area, with mitigation funding from the Carolina Crossroads interstate improvement project.
The newly protected land, featuring wetlands and streams, protects drinking water for communities along the Saluda River. The area is also home to a number of state and federal “species of concern,” including the Newberry burrowing crayfish.
Looking ahead, the Saluda River tracts will be conveyed to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources for addition to the Belfast Wildlife Management Area, a key linkage between the Long Cane and Enoree Districts of the Sumter National Forest.
As one of the fastest-growing states in the country, the need for conservation continues to press on South Carolina. OSI is meeting the challenge. “OSI has gone from an effective, little-known organization to a key player in making these conservation projects happen,” says Berry. “Our ability to take on and manage a range of large-scale projects using available mitigation dollars is producing lasting and meaningful results.”