Jan/Feb 2011The Treasure Hunters by Glenn Oeland

The Heritage Trust program works to protect South Carolina's most rare and valuable cultural, historical and ecological treasures.

Barely a mile from the oceanfront hotels and manicured golf links of Myrtle Beach lies a parcel of land with sections so untamed they seem locked in a time warp. William Bartram, the pioneering botanist who came through these parts in the 18th century searching for plants new to science, would no doubt be delighted to behold the Venus flytraps, yellow pitcher plants and lofty longleaf pines still thriving at Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve (despite a wildfire that swept through in April of 2009, burning nearly 8,000 acres). This 9,648-acre sanctuary provides refuge not only for rare flora, but also for some pretty special fauna - including the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, the rebounding bald eagle and the elusive black bear. And in case you missed the wonder of that last word, allow me to underscore it: A haven for bear hardly a hoot and a holler from South Carolina's biggest tourist town. How could that happen?

Part of the answer lies in the cussedness of the bay's terrain, which is flooded for part of the year and vine-tied for all of it. Lewis Ocean Bay is a bit of a misnomer, for the preserve encompasses not just one, but more than twenty Carolina bays - elliptical or oval depressions of mysterious origin. These evergreen shrub bogs came to be called bays due to the preponderance of bay trees in their understory, which, together with fetterbush, catbrier, gallberry, titi and a tangle of other vegetation, conspire to create thickets so dense a dog has to back up to bark.

But no matter how thick and thorny, or how daunting even to bears, Carolina bays are no match for bulldozers. The larger answer as to why the Lewis Ocean bays remain intact points to the foresighted efforts of a handful of people - a group I like to think of as treasure hunters. Not the swashbuckling sorts who raid tombs and raise sunken ships in search of loot, but a cadre of dedicated scientists who, for decades, have been searching the unpaved precincts of South Carolina in a conscious and concerted effort to save the state's biological and archaeological riches. Their efforts, supported and supplemented by the work of many others, have led to the creation of a statewide network of protected properties called heritage preserves.

Like Lewis Ocean Bay, most are havens for creatures pushed to the margins by the march of progress - a group, incidentally, that includes nature-starved human souls. A lesser number of these preserves safeguard touchstones of the state's past, from ancient campsites used by Stone Age hunters, to land made sacred by the sweat and blood of settlers, slaves and soldiers.

All told, there are now seventy-four dedicated heritage preserves across the whole of South Carolina, together protecting more than 90,000 acres of habitat, scores of rare and imperiled species and more than a dozen archaeological sites. Each preserve has a story to tell - a saga, in fact, given the age of this land. But limited pages will permit us only to dip into the latest chapter, which opens in 1974 with the arrival in Columbia of a computer geek turned conservationist.

Tom Kohlsaat, a native of Minnesota, graduated from college with a hard-earned degree in electrical engineering. But this was the late 1960s, an era of rising environmental consciousness, and Kohlsaat got caught up in the green wave breaking over the country. He enrolled in Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, earning a Masters of Forest Science. But finding a forestry job in New England proved impossible, so when The Nature Conservancy, an up-and-coming conservation outfit based in Arlington, Virginia, offered him a one-year contract, Kohlsaat jumped at the chance. His assignment: Head down to South Carolina and nurture a fledgling land protection program, a joint venture between TNC and the state wildlife agency (now the S.C. Department of Natural Resources).

Kohlsaat's boss at TNC, a force of nature named Robert "Bob" Jenkins, had come up with an innovative, science-based strategy for saving endangered plants and animals: the Natural Areas Inventory. The idea was to get ahead of the bulldozers by identifying each state's richest natural sites before the land became too pricey to protect. To its credit, South Carolina was the first state to buy into the idea, and today all fifty states have heritage programs modeled after the one pioneered here in the Palmetto State.

Kohlsaat arrived in Columbia the summer of 1974 and was soon joined by field biologist John Dennis, also on a short-term contract with TNC. While Dennis traveled the state's back roads sleuthing for promising sites, Kohlsaat combed through scientific papers, museum records and botany manuals looking for leads to guide the search. Information gathered by both men was fed into a computer and uploaded to TNC headquarters.

"Back in those days, all computers were mainframes," Kohlsaat recalls. "We'd go down to the computer center at the University of South Carolina and key punch a bunch of IBM cards. Then we'd hand them through a window to a person who would run the program. You paid so much for computer time and so much for printer time."

From these modest beginnings, the TNC database grew into the world's largest repository of information on rare and endangered species. (The Conservancy has since outsourced the database to a separate nonprofit called NatureServe, and the DNR now keeps computerized tabs on many of the state's imperiled plants and animals.) But the path from key-punch cards to world-class conservation tool was a bumpy ride at times.

During its early years, the Natural Areas Inventory produced hit-or-miss results, so Bob Jenkins upended the approach, shifting the focus from sites to species. Under the new strategy, the location of every known "element of concern" would be pinpointed on a map. Clusters of points would reveal where Kohlsaat and his colleagues in other states should target their land protection efforts.

As more and more states launched heritage programs and began funneling information into the central database, an illuminating picture emerged, one that revealed the distribution of rare and endangered plants and animals across the entire country. This information helped scientists get a better handle on the "ambient rarity" (a phrase coined by Jenkins) of each species. It also helped people like Kohlsaat - now hired by the DNR to carry on the work launched by The Nature Conservancy - zero in on crucial habitat.

Of course locating critical land is one thing; actually saving it is another. Before that could happen, there were political battles to fight and win.

A major victory came in 1976 with passage of the South Carolina Heritage Trust Act. The first law of its kind in the country, the act established the Heritage Trust, a legal entity designed to permanently protect lands with outstanding natural or cultural value. (The framers of the bill had a broader vision than The Nature Conservancy, one that included archaeological sites and historic properties, as well as endangered species.) The legislation names the citizens of South Carolina as benefactors of the trust, with the DNR's board members serving as trustees.

While the act was laudable for the strong legal protection it afforded heritage preserves, it provided no funding for acquiring them, leaving the program entirely dependent on donations and whatever money it could finagle from federal sources. Given this handicap, the Heritage Trust program limped through its first ten years of life, managing by a variety of creative means to protect seventeen mostly small to modest-size properties. "We went to bat a lot," says Kohlsaat, "but we didn't have a very good batting average."

Except, that is, for one homerun early in the game. On July 9, 1976, Tom Yawkey, owner of the Boston Red Sox for the previous forty-four years, passed away, leaving his 18,000-acre coastal retreat to the state of South Carolina. His will stipulated that the spectacular property, situated on the south side of Winyah Bay in Georgetown County, be protected in perpetuity as a heritage preserve.

Despite the leanness of that first decade, Kohlsaat was able to build a small but talented team of treasure hunters - including two botanists, an ornithologist and a zoologist - thanks in part to the Check For Wildlife campaign. The option to make a voluntary donation to the Heritage Trust program first appeared on state tax forms in 1981. It's still there, but now competes for notice on a crowded field of worthy causes.

A pivotal battle on the political front was fought in 1986. State Senator Arthur Ravenel, at the time a member of the Heritage Trust Advisory Board, proposed dedicating a small portion of revenue from the real estate transfer tax to a Heritage Land Trust Fund. The provision would add twenty dollars to the cost of selling a $100,000 home and was projected to generate a million dollars a year for land acquisition.

"The measure passed by five votes," says Kohlsaat, chuckling at the memory. "It never would have passed as a stand-alone bill, so Ravenel filed it as an amendment to the state budget."

The infusion of new funds made a dramatic difference. Rather than protecting a few hundred acres a year, as was typical before 1986, the Heritage Trust program was now able to acquire thousands of acres annually. During the 1990s it protected 4,000 acres a year, on average, at an average cost of $521 an acre. The low per-acre price was owed in large part to the many property owners who, motivated by their sense of stewardship and love for the land, were willing to sell at below-market or even bargain prices.

The program's new purchasing power came at an opportune moment, for a paradigm shift was starting to take place. "Sometime around the early 1990s, most everyone in the conservation movement began putting less emphasis on individual sites and much more on whole ecosystems," Kohlsaat says. The change in thinking stemmed from a deepening understanding of conservation biology, as well as from the practical challenges posed by small preserves.

"We came to realize that maintaining habitat on a small acreage with land changing all around it is a very difficult proposition," says Barry Beasley, who took over as director of the program in 2004. To illustrate the challenge, Beasley points to Blackjack Oaks Heritage Preserve in upper York County, an area rocked in recent years by the explosive growth of nearby Charlotte, North Carolina.

At 291 acres, Blackjack Oaks is small but spectacularly diverse, a botanist's candy land encompassing six distinct ecological communities and some four hundred plant species, including a globally endangered sunflower. By accidents of geology and land use, a few patches of extremely rare remnant prairie endure on two power-line rights of way that pass through the preserve. For centuries, brush fires ignited by lightning or set by Native Americans swept the area, keeping upstart trees from displacing the prairie. Maintaining this rare habitat requires regular controlled burns, but housing subdivisions now press in on three sides, presenting a litany of safety and liability concerns. "Our ability to maintain that habitat becomes more and more challenging each year," Beasley says.

The Blackjack Oaks preserve is not alone in demonstrating the stark fact that endangered species marooned on islands of habitat surrounded by seas of development face very uncertain futures. Steve Bennett, who in 1980 became the Heritage Trust Program's first zoologist, nicely sums up the major lesson he and others have learned over the past thirty years: "When it comes to land protection, bigger is always better."

Of course Bennett would be quick to acknowledge that complicated questions invariably arise: Is it better to buy 5,000 acres of pine monoculture, or 500 acres of species-rich forest? The larger tract holds little habitat value in the short run, but with hard work and patience, even a desert can be made to bloom.

While such questions can ignite rancorous debate, the new push to protect whole ecosystems inspired a number of ambitious cooperative ventures, including the ACE Basin and Jocassee Gorges projects. (See "Focus on Conservation,") Conservation efforts of all kinds received an exponential boost in 2002, when the General Assembly established the South Carolina Conservation Bank. Like the Heritage Land Trust Fund, the bank receives a portion of the real estate transfer tax. Since its founding, the bank has funneled more than $80 million to dozens of projects, protecting more than 150,000 acres of forests, wetlands, farmland and historic properties.

"New perspectives require new approaches," Kohlsaat wrote in these pages on the 25th anniversary of the Heritage Trust Act. That was ten years ago, in 2001. Three years later, DNR Director John Frampton initiated a major reshuffling of the agency in an effort to erase the unnatural line between game and so-called "nongame" wildlife programs and bring all of the department's land protection efforts under a single umbrella called the Habitat Protection Section. Seeing habitat through a wide lens, rather than focusing tightly on endangered species, the retooled DNR was soon posting impressive numbers on the land protection scoreboard.

In 2005, with generous support from the Conservation Bank, the Heritage Land Trust Fund and other backers, the agency acquired more than 18,000 acres. Large-area initiatives were the big winners, with the ACE Basin project scoring three barrier islands, and Jocassee Gorges adding two adjoining mountain properties, including the summit of the state's tallest peak, 3,554-foot Sassafras Mountain.

The following year, 2006, was one for the record books. When International Paper and other forest products firms announced that they would begin selling off large blocks of their landholdings, the DNR scrambled to seize this "once-in-a-generation opportunity," as Frampton called it. Assisted by The Nature Conservancy, The Conservation Fund, the South Carolina Conservation Bank and other partners, the agency closed deals on nearly 40,000 acres, including the 25,668-acre Woodbury tract in Marion County. Situated between two scenic rivers and encompassing at least a dozen Carolina bays, this magnificent property seems destined to upstage Lewis Ocean Bay as the wildest attraction near Myrtle Beach.

In recent years, the so-called Great Recession has displayed a fine sense of irony, bringing both land development and land protection to a virtual standstill. The new realities have prodded many conservationists to rethink old strategies.

"Land acquisition has its place," says Kohlsaat, "but it can't be the only game in town." Beasley, who retired while this article was being prepared, agrees: "We're never going to have the financial resources to acquire and manage every acre of land we might want to."

When asked about the future of land protection in South Carolina, Kohlsaat says, "The trend is going to be less toward acquisition and more toward cooperative work with landowners, as exemplified by the land trust movement." Beasley's answer points in the same direction, toward people who love the land and are willing to work with others to save it.

"South Carolinians have a strong sense of place," he says. "Whether it's the lake where their granddaddy took them fishing, or the woods where they shot their first deer, they want to know that these places will be here for coming generations. They want to know they won't be the last to see a beautiful bottomland forest or mountain vista. These desires pull people together to save the places that are special to them."


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