May/June 2020Jewels in the Crown Text & original art by John E. Davis
Come with me on a pilgrimage to four of the most diverse, vast and spectacular natural areas in our state. Each is a jewel in the crown of an incredibly successful program to preserve and protect South Carolina's natural wealth for present and future generations..
Imagine Greenville, Richland and Charleston counties combined and you have an idea of the total size of the more than 1.1 million acres in the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and Heritage Trust (HT) programs. Much of this acreage lies within U.S. Forest Service boundaries or is leased from private corporations and individuals; some 270,000 are owned by the SCDNR.
The four sites we're visiting make up almost one half of those SCDNR-owned lands. Lengthy articles have been written on the history, wealth of native species (both plant and animal) and significance of each of the areas on our list. Our almost impossible task within these pages is to capture one moment, create one painting, to represent each of our four stops.
James W. Webb Wildlife Center
First on the list is a nearly 6,000-acre tract near Garnett in Hampton County, the James W. Webb Wildlife Center. Purchased in 1941 with state and matching federal money generated through hunters' license dollars, Webb formed the foundation of the program. In addition to providing first-rate experiences for hunters, hikers and birders, Webb serves as a mecca for wildlife research, a meeting place for youth and conservation groups and wildlife planners, a training ground for conservation officers and more. Something is going on here year-round, yet there's also much solitude to be found.
Turning into Webb's live oak lined lane, I remember that biologist April Atkinson, who I'm here to meet, is in charge of managing adjacent Palachucola and Hamilton Ridge WMAs as well as Webb. When combined, that's almost 26,000 acres of Lowcountry wildlands running from the old Augusta Stagecoach Road to the Savannah River.
A quick stop at the center’s office and we're off in Atkinson's truck to visit some of her favorite sites on the property. As with all of the WMAs we'll visit, there’s much to see and choose from. Webb offers a maze of sandy lanes through stands of tall pines, live oaks, newly planted green fields, and tupelo and cypress swamps bordering the river.
We talk about the many roles Webb now plays as Atkinson’s familiarity with the place takes us through numerous twists and turns, stops to open gates and drag an occasional fallen limb out of our way. Finally, we come into a large stand of mature longleaf pines, clear beneath except for knee-high ground cover.
"This is the Sawtimber Stand," she says as I admire the scene. We look for different angles and painting locations beneath the serene expanse of tall pines.
"Our goal here is to recreate the type of longleaf pine savanna that dominated this area before Europeans came," Atkinson says, adding that it’s a constant battle to keep the understory clear. As we talk about what's involved in the management plan here, her tone and words convey a quiet pride and personal dedication I’ve since witnessed in all the agency's employees charged with managing and protecting these natural areas.
Later that afternoon I make my way back to the stand to take photos and paint a couple of small color sketches for later reference during the final studio painting. A warm breeze whispers through the towering trees, interrupted occasionally by bird song and the call of a red-tailed hawk.
For a few minutes I concentrate on the white banded trees that indicate nesting cavities of the area's diminutive endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. None show and I set up an easel in the sandy track beneath a clear sky. There’s the feeling of being in a great green cathedral with light blue ceiling arching above. It's so quiet, that I could be the only human in the world.
Dusk comes too soon and after a night as the only boarder in Webb's lodge, built in the early 1900s by August Belmont of Belmont Stakes fame, I take an hour or so to ride over the property then again revisit the Sawtimber Stand, imagining deer ghosting beneath its tall canopy and feeding in one of the distant wildlife openings. It's easy to understand why Atkinson chose this site.
Santee Coastal Reserve Wildlife Management Area
It's now early fall and our next stop is the Santee Coastal Reserve WMA, acquired in 1974 from the historic Santee Gun Club. Santee Coastal covers almost 24,000 acres near McClellanville, in Charleston County. The sandy entrance is again bordered by tall pines, though much younger than Webb's. Eventually this gives way to green grassy openings and massive live oaks, beyond which stretches a seemingly endless network of shallow flooded impoundments.
At the old gun club lodge waits biologist Joachim Treptow, Upper Coastal Waterfowl Project leader, who also manages the nearby Santee Delta and the Samworth WMAs. It's a beautiful warm day. I've read about the area's swarms of biting insects, but we'll be in Treptow's vehicle most of the time, with a fair breeze blowing.
Passing between a couple of large storage sheds, I notice other SCDNR staff readying trucks and large trailers. We stop for a moment, and Treptow explains they've been told to expect almost a foot and a half of rain as Hurricane Dorian passes. The heavy equipment that maintains Santee Coastal's dikes and impounded fields must be moved to higher ground.
"The folks you see here are the heart of Santee Coastal," he says. "Day-in, day-out, through the heat, humidity, bugs and often muddy, backbreaking work, they do what has to be done and never complain." Again, the dedication and pride in place and personnel I sensed in Atkinson's comments is evident.
We turn onto one of the impoundment dikes and Treptow notes that the vast open expanse we're viewing was once a cypress swamp lining the mighty Santee River. Cleared, drained, diked and planted in rice by enslaved hands during a dark period in our state's history, the old rice fields are now carefully maintained and managed impoundments for waterfowl, wading birds and other wildlife. And there are quite a variety to see this morning including mottled ducks, terns and wood storks.
Impoundments stretch to the horizon, shimmering under the full sun, as we ride out on the dikes, sometimes smooth and sandy, other times so rough that I think we'll surely get stuck. Treptow stops the truck as I see a potential painting scene, or we come to a flood gate that needs adjusting. "It's sort of like a giant puzzle," he says. "Fresh water comes from the river, depending on its tidal ebb and flow. You open one flood gate and close another depending on which fields need flooding or draining."
Too soon it's time to go and let them continue preparations for the coming storm.
From the Lowcountry, we travel to Jocassee Gorges in the northwest corner of our state. Here some 43,000 acres, most owned by the SCDNR, were acquired in 1998 after a multiyear, multi-organization effort.
Conservation easements and purchases in the two Carolinas and Georgia assure a total of some 150,000 acres will be protected. Like the other areas on our list, the Gorges' qualifications for such protection are an incredible wealth of wildlife fauna and flora, including many endangered, rare and unusual animals and plants, unparalleled recreational opportunities and its rugged remoteness.
Near Rocky Bottom in Pickens County, graveled Horsepasture Road joins Highway 178. Cut into the rugged landscape, its switchbacks twist slowly upward to a ridge far above one of the clearest, deepest and most beautiful lakes in the Southeast, Jocassee. I've read that word in the Cherokee language means "Place of the lost one;" there’s certainly more than enough undeveloped mountain ridges and valleys to support that definition. Here, crystal clear rivers, streams and creeks tumble through the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Waterfalls abound.
Mountains run to the horizon, all covered by dense stands of hardwoods and evergreens. There is almost no sign of development anywhere.
Our destination, Jumping Off Rock, juts out over these wildlands. My old friend, SCDNR Education and Recreation Specialist Greg Lucas, stationed in the SCDNR's Clemson office, often leads hiking and birding trips into the area.
"We are so blessed that some very smart people more than two decades ago had the foresight to make sure this wonderful area was protected and placed in public lands," Lucas says. "Maintaining the area's natural character and providing public recreation compatible with that character are the most important considerations in the agency’s management plan."
Standing just above the actual Jumping Off Rock (a perch you definitely wouldn’t want to jump from), fellow painter Stan Shreve and I look out over the dark blue and green waters far below, toward old Musterground Mountain. For several moments neither of us speaks, entranced by the beauty, vastness and silence. A raven flying below us croaks a welcome, or perhaps tells us to go back home.
DeSoto and his conquistadors visited the area in 1539. The Cherokee and other Native Americans before them hunted, foraged and built their towns in its folds. Except for the white wakes of a few pleasure boaters below, it's easy to imagine ourselves in another century. It's also comforting to know that this view and these unspoiled lands will always be here for all to visit and enjoy.
Wateree Heritage Preserve and WMA
Our final destination is just south of Columbia in Richland County. Wateree Heritage Preserve and WMA is the most recently acquired of our four "jewels." Its almost 4,000 acres, bordered by the Wateree River, include former Goodwill plantation and Cooks Mountain. It is one of the Midlands' most unique land formations, rising some 372 feet above sea level.
Dense lowland growth borders unpaved Goodwill Road turning off the Sumter Highway less than a mile before the river bridge. Driving through this lowland forest, over a brisk blackwater stream, through pine stands and past several wildlife openings, I soon realize I've somehow passed my contact, biologist Travis Bennett, who manages SCDNR lands in Richland, Lexington, Saluda and Newberry counties.
A quick phone call and we meet up at the area's equipment compound and head off for what Bennett describes as the reason most come here — the view from Cook's mountain. After a climbing, twisting drive, the Wateree River and its floodplain spread out beneath us. It's an absolutely beautiful vista, but Wateree's rich hardwood floodplain bottoms are what most intrigues me today.
On the way back down, a heavy-bodied buck flashes across the road before us. Bennett and I marvel at its speed and beauty. We talk about the area's past: its rich history and archaeological sites. Though far inland, these include the remains of a few old rice fields similar to those at Santee Coastal Reserve. Later we catch a flock of a dozen or more hefty gobblers by surprise.
After pausing for a moment to enjoy the sight of these magnificent birds, Bennett drives on until we reach a stretch of road bordered by a stand of holly and switch cane. Getting out and pushing through an opening, we're treated to a 180-degree view of bottomland hardwoods. A small drain winds among the flaring, moss-covered tree buttresses. The ground, covered with leaves, is soft and spongy.
I've heard that some do not care for such dim swampy places. Imagining the buck, the turkeys or perhaps a bobcat coming from across the creek, or a great horned or barred owl calling, I find it is as beautiful as any place I've ever seen.
The SCDNR's Deputy Director of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, Emily Cope, is keenly aware of the increasing value of these wild lands, having begun her career as a field biologist at Webb and later being involved in even larger land acquisitions and easements, including the agency's partnerships with both private and public organizations and individuals to preserve tens of thousands of additional acres in focus areas such as the ACE and COWASSEE Basin projects.
"Our WMAs and Heritage Preserves are true treasures, not only for today but also for generations to come," says Cope. "By permanently protecting these properties and managing them to enhance the quality of our natural resources, we're ensuring South Carolinians will always be able to enjoy outdoor recreation and make a personal connection with nature."
Nowhere can I imagine the truth in her words being more evident than the four "jewels" just visited. Whether you hunt and fish, like to hike, camp, boat, birdwatch or simply get out for a picnic, the agency's WMAs and HT preserves are there for your enjoyment. Contact the SCDNR for a list of these lands, their open dates, hours and regulations. Most importantly, consider supporting the program by purchasing a WMA permit. Your investment goes directly toward protecting and sustaining these marvelous wildlands for all.
John E. Davis joined the South Carolina Wildlife Department in 1973, serving as SCW Section Chief and editor for twenty-two years before retiring from the SCDNR in 2002. For information on purchasing original paintings or prints, readers may contact him through his website at jedavisfineart.com.
Before visiting WMA or Heritage Preserve Properties, visit https://www2.dnr.sc.gov/Managedlands or call the SCDNR to obtain Open Hours, Hunt Dates and Regulations.
Location: The Webb Wildlife Center entrance is 2.7 miles from Garnett, on Augusta Stagecoach Road (S-20). An oak-shaded, earthen avenue leads visitors to the main office complex. Office hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Webb Wildlife Center is open for general visitation year-round during daylight hours, but will close during special hunts.
Phone Number: (803) 625-3569
Location: Jocassee Gorges public lands are located in northern Pickens County, eastern Oconee County and surrounds Lake Jocassee. When planning a visit, go to https://www2.dnr.sc.gov/ManagedLands or call:
South Carolina Department of Natural Resources: (864) 654-1671
South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism: (864) 878-9813
Duke Energy: (800) 777-1004
United States Forest Service: (864) 638-9568
Location: This 24,000-acre property is composed of Murphy Island, Cedar Island, The Cape, Washo Reserve and adjacent upland habitats. The area is closed during special hunts. The Santee Coastal Reserve address is 220 Santee Gun Club Road in McClellanville.
Phone Number: (843) 546-8665
Wateree WMA and Heritage Preserve
Location: To reach the preserve from Columbia, go approximately 17 miles east on U.S. Highway 378 (business) to its junction with U.S. Highway 601. Travel 1.7 miles, then turn north on Goodwill Plantation Road across from Goodwill Baptist Church.
The area is closed during special hunts.
Phone Number: (803) 353-6215