When I was a boy, there were few greater pleasures than hunting ducks with my father along the Edisto's black water, hoping to bag a pintail. My family's property on the river, Willtown Bluff, was my idea of heaven. However, I soon recognized how vulnerable heaven could be.

I watched each year as Charleston's growth came nearer and nearer to Willtown. The city's advance became increasingly evident as traffic lights appeared with greater frequency along Highway 17 South.

When I expressed concerns to my father, he said: "My generation had to fight war and depression; your generation is going to have to deal with unplanned growth."

As an adult returning to Willtown, I soon became aware of plans to build a massive marina and resort down river. I was not alone in opposing the venture, and the ACE Basin Task Force was formed. We successfully defeated that project and then continued an organized effort to preserve the natural integrity of the beautiful lands and waters that comprise the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto (ACE) river region.

I was reminded of our mission last month when the White House announced its America's Great Outdoors Initiative, which seeks to engage communities in devising creative approaches to conserving outdoor resources.

The Task Force's unconventional method for protecting the ACE made private landowners the foot-soldiers on a grassroots mission to encourage their fellow landowners to protect their properties through donated conservation easements. One tract at a time, this patchwork quilt of voluntary land protection began, and, 20 years later, we have protected more than 200,000 acres.

But the ACE Basin also benefitted from federal dollars, more than $15 million over four decades, funneled to the region from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Congress established the LWCF specifically to conserve America's iconic landscapes -- places like the ACE Basin -- for both wildlife and people. \

The problem is that lawmakers routinely divert LWCF money to pay for other priorities, making appropriations quite unpredictable from year to year; the program has been fully funded only twice in its 40-year history. Since the LWCF is primarily funded by offshore energy revenues, it should be viewed as mitigation. With the crisis in the Gulf, we can fully appreciate the importance of the LWCF.

Fortunately, a bill introduced in Congress last November would guarantee full funding for the LWCF beginning in FY 2011, effectively insulating the fund from random raids. The bill currently resides in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. It must move out of committee and into law as soon as possible.

The ACE Basin, which once was the center of rice cultivation and provided strategic military footholds during the Revolutionary War and Civil War, is one of the largest undeveloped watersheds on the East Coast.

It is home to federally endangered shortnose sturgeon, wood stork, and loggerhead turtle populations, as well as bald eagles, myriad migratory waterfowl, bobcats, mink, wild turkeys, alligators and white tailed deer. These creatures' habitats range across vast stretches of tupelo and cypress bottomlands, freshwater and saltwater marshes, intertidal swamps, globally rare maritime forest, and the South's imperiled longleaf pine forests.

If fully funded, the LWCF can help ensure that the ACE Basin and other important natural lands and waters in South Carolina retain their unspoiled southern majesty and continue to provide a generous return on investment that supports our quality of life and traditional enjoyment of our last great places.