EDISTO ISLAND -- For five years, Marian Brailsford kept after the owner of the old Paradise Shrimp Farm -- gracious, soft-spoken and relentless.

Finally, Bob Underwood signed a conservation easement before he died, to protect 550 acres along the North Edisto River. The wide-open marsh and live oak acreage is the first thing you see coming over the S.C. Highway 174 bridge. It's the largest single tract of land conserved so far by the Edisto Island Open Land Trust.

At the property closing, Underwood said he wasn't sure he'd have gone through with it if Brailsford hadn't kept at him.

"She's like a bull terrier," he said. "She grabbed a-holt my pants leg and she wouldn't let go."

Brailsford has a smile in her eyes as she recalls it. She knew all along he really wanted to do it, she said. It was a matter of legacy.

Brailsford is stepping away as the trust director in December, after eight years of playing a vital role helping to conserve an almost-unheard-of 50 percent of the island enclave of woods and farms south of Charleston.

She's not going away; just getting out from behind the desk of an exhausting job, she said. Trust directors, on the average, last only 18 months.

"I'm looking forward to being a conservation volunteer," she said. "I'll always be a conservation junkie."

Brailsford likes to talk about Edisto Island as the jewel of the ACE Basin. She is the woman who wears the jewel.

The 48,000-acre beach town barrier island isn't often thought of as part of the basin, that one-of-a-kind, public-private, ecological preserve of nearly a quarter-million acres along three river deltas between Charleston and Beaufort.

But it is. In fact, plans to build a large marina on the island in the 1980s launched the landmark conservation effort.

"If there's anything we can stand back and holler about, the whole Edisto (conservation) thing exceeded anyone's expectations," said Charles Lane, the Edisto River property owner who was one of the organizers of the ACE Basin effort.

"She's been the leader and the cheerleader. She's another example of somebody making a difference, leaving this place just a little bit better," he said.

Hands on

When Columbia attorney Jim Brailsford retired to Edisto Island nine years ago, his wife, Marian, tagged along, she said with a mischievous grin. She ran her own sales and customer service consulting business, after years of working in the field with IBM.

Neither are lifelong islanders. But Jim vacationed on the island all his life. He and Marian he owned a beach property.

They sat back to enjoy the sweep of marsh and live oak along Russell Creek where they live and began hearing about plans to build all around it. It was the early '90s, in the heat of the building boom that was changing the Lowcountry.

For the Brailsfords, conservation is a love affair. They played a role in preserving the vast Congaree Swamp near Columbia.

At the time, the Edisto land trust was a low-key, volunteer agency spawned partly by the ACE effort. It had bought a few small properties and been donated a few more. Its total conservation easement was 28 acres.

Marion Brailsford saw a chance to work "literally hands-on," she said "I was smitten, by the land and realizing what could be done with this land through conservation easements."

The easements are contracts between the trust and private property owners that restrict development to maintain the natural environs of a tract of land, in exchange for a payment.

They have been pivotal to the ACE effort and are in large part responsible for conserved land up and down the coast.

Brailsford dug in. In eight years, one tract of 28 conserved acres has become 42 tracts totalling 3,000 acres -- places like Mystery Tree, Legacy Live Oak, Cedar Hall Farm.

"Soon it will be 43," Brailsford said with that smile. Alongside public holdings like the state's Botany Bay Wildlife Refuge and Edisto Beach State Park and the holdings of other conservation groups, the acreage keeps half the island in woods, farms and natural beach.

The next generation

The people on Edisto have that natural pride in the rural environs where they live, a place haunted by colorful painted buntings in the summer. Conservation has become contagious.

One property owner, whom Brailsford introduced to the idea of easements, began talking to his neighbors. The trust ended up conserving six adjoining properties totalling 143 acres.

In 2009, the trust and its partner island preservation groups capped a six-year-long effort by unveiling signs naming S.C. 174 a National Scenic Highway. Along with the pride, the designation opens up new funding sources for conservation efforts.

When ACE Basin organizer Lane showed up for the unveiling, he stopped in his tracks. Instead of a knot of "the usual suspects," he said, the ceremony was swarmed by the everyday people who live on the island -- all ages, races and backgrounds.

"They've not just gotten the easements, they have gotten the people on Edisto Island to realize what a special place they have," Lane said. "It's wonderful that Edisto is one of one or two of our natural, inhabited barrier islands that will be there for the next generation to enjoy, not just hear about."