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March 11, 2016
75 Years and a Million Acres (and Counting)
Hallowed ground in more ways than one, in 1941 the DNR’s James W. Webb Wildlife Center was ground-zero for what would become a robust system of public-access lands for hunting, recreation and research that today provides enormous benefits for all South Carolinians.
(Garnett, S.C) Walking the grounds of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ James W. Webb Wildlife Center, the sense of history is pervasive. Appropriately so — long before it was purchased by the state’s fish and wildlife management agency in 1941, the nearly 6,000-acres of "Belmont Plantation" was a King’s Grant property, bestowed upon the Tison family in 1737 by George II. Burned by General Sherman during the winter of 1865, the main house was rebuilt by Col. John Tison in 1890, and later served as a hunting lodge for friends and family of the wealthy Belmont family (of Belmont Stakes horseracing fame), who purchased it in 1902, just as many other war-ravaged former plantations in the South Carolina Lowcountry were purchased.
The property was renamed in honor of the DNR’s second director in 1975, and today, the rambling old house with its dark wood paneling and wide, inviting porches again serves as a hunting lodge during deer and turkey season — not for the scions of wealthy industrialists, but for everyday South Carolinians and out-of-state visitors who apply by the thousands each year for a coveted spot in one of the DNR’s annual computer-drawn lottery hunts held there. It is a public property, owned and managed in perpetuity for the benefit of the citizens of South Carolina and for the hundreds of species of wildlife — game, nongame and some endangered — that call its longleaf pine-dominated uplands, swampy river bottoms and extensive wetlands home.
It’s also the very first property in what would eventually become a state-wide system of publicly-accessible wildlands of more than one million acres (and counting) that stretches northward from the ACE Basin to the Jocassee Gorges and westward through the Midlands and Pee Dee. Throughout 2016, the DNR will be celebrating the75th anniversary the Webb Center and of its public lands programs.
On March 11, state Rep. Mike Pitts of Laurens visited the Webb Center to speak to a group made up of the DNR’s senior management staff, biologists, members of the State Natural Resources Board and others, to recognize this important anniversary for the DNR’s public managed lands programs. Rep. Pitts is a member of the House Ways and Means and Ethics committees and is active in a number of conservation and hunting-related organizations, including serving as president of the National Assembly of Sportsmen's Caucuses (NASC) and has worked tirelessly on behalf of South Carolina’s sportsmen and women. DNR Executive Director Alvin Taylor also addressed the group.
"We are extremely proud of what we have been able to accomplish with these programs over the past seventy-five years," said Taylor. "The amount of work that has been done in the areas of habitat protection, scientific research and education is just phenomenal, but I’m especially proud of the fact that we have been able to provide access to quality hunting and other outdoor recreation opportunities for all South Carolinians. Not everyone has the resources to own or lease a piece of hunting land, but our WMA properties provide a wealth of hunting access for everyone to enjoy. Maintaining our state’s legacy of outdoor traditions is extremely important as we enter the 21st Century."
Currently, the DNR maintains a public hunting program that encompasses more than a million acres of public-access land. Agency staff manages habitat, facilities, infrastructure and access on more than 260,000 acres of DNR-owned Wildlife Management Areas and Heritage Preserves, and additional WMA lands are leased using funds generated from the sale of WMA hunting permits. Last year, more than 61,000 such permits were purchased, but hunters aren’t the only ones utilizing these areas.
SouthCarolina's WMA and heritage preserve properties across the state are utilized by outdoor enthusiasts with a diverse set of interests and hobbies that includes wildlife viewing, fishing, hiking, biking, paddling, birdwatching and photography, as well as hunting. These properties are also used by scientists from the DNR and other agencies involved in a wide array of research projects. They serve as demonstration areas for wildlife and conservation-friendly land management practices, as sites for educational field trips and for a host of other uses. Estimates of the annual economic activity generated by all of these activities run into the millions of dollars.
Emily Cope, the DNR’s Deputy Director for Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, has seen the enormous value of these public lands up close. Cope spent the early part of her career working as a field biologist at the Webb Center, and a large part of her later tenure with the agency has been spent working with large land acquisitions, including the "landscape-level" projects required to protect habitats and wildlife from future development. Public-private partnerships such as the ACE and COWASSEE basin projects and many others marry publicly-owned and managed properties with conservation easements provided by private landowners to create large, contiguous landscapes of undeveloped land that are beneficial for wildlife and promote continued traditional uses for those properties such as farming and hunting. Thousands of South Carolinians visit the public properties owned and managed by the DNR in these areas, but million more who may never set foot on them also reap the benefits, as will future generations.
"We [the DNR] have really made our mark across the state protecting lands, not only for the greater good of conservation, but also to allow our constituents and visitors to South Carolina a great place to go and enjoy the outdoors," said Cope. "The Webb Center set the standard for that."
Celebrating that initial purchase of "Belmont Plantation" back in 1941 and the myriad benefits that have accrued to our citizens as a result is something the DNR hopes that all South Carolinians will join in on in 2016, paying a visit to one of these outstanding public properties.
More information on Celebrating 75 Years of Wildlife Management Areas.
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