The Coastal Conservation League has had many successes protecting the environment over the past 25 years, but it will have to do some things differently if it plans to be around decades from now.

Just what changes the organization might make was the focus of the final brainstorming session of the group’s 25th anniversary conference, held Thursday at the Francis Marion Hotel.

“We’re at a point where the Lowcountry realizes the simple importance of conservation,” said Dana Beach, the group’s founder and director. But over the next decade, the league needs to make a stronger connection between conservation and the economy, culture and human health.

It’s also time for the region to become a leader in the environmental movement and an example of responsible development, he said.

Panelists for the session were Emory Campbell, president of Gullah Heritage Consulting Service; Hamilton Davis, energy and climate director at the Coastal Conservation League; Charles Lane, chairman of the ACE Basin Taskforce; and David Shi, president emeritus of Furman University.

Lane, who for decades has worked on preserving the region’s environment, said the movement has gained steam over the past 25 years. Without that, “South Carolina would have been left to the same fate as Florida or New Jersey,” he said, referring to poor land-use planning and urban sprawl.

But in the future, it needs to be more closely connected to economic development, he said. For instance, promoting sustainable agriculture would be a boon for the environment and financially struggling rural areas. “What kind of economic sense does it make to put houses on our best farmland?” he asked.

He also said the league must form stronger partnerships with other groups.

Campbell, one of the league’s founding members, said his group is ready to work more closely with the league. The Gullah and Geechee people serve as an example of how closely people are connected to the land, he said.

Shi said the league, for its first 25 years, has been an advocacy organization, but it should avoid being pigeonholed that way in the future. “Advocacy organizations, regrettably, within a few years, become stereotyped,” he said.

Environmental groups must be concerned with how they are perceived by communities, he said, and the perception should be one of “integrity, authenticity and success.”

The league should consider also becoming a service organization, he said. For example, many corporations and government agencies have hired sustainability coordinators, but not many of them are well-trained on environmental issues. The league could fill that void and create “a different portal through which it can engage other organizations and government agencies.”

Davis said the league’s successes over the past several years indicate that South Carolinians are concerned about the environment and willing to protect it. The last coal plant proposed in the state in 2009 failed, he said. “I think that’s the last coal plant we will see proposed in South Carolina. I do think that bodes well for the future.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491.