Boeing's presence in the Lowcountry has delighted local economists. Now it is delighting local ecologists.

The aerospace giant has agreed to purchase 3,618 acres critical to the health of the Francis Marion National Forest. The company will turn the acreage over to be preserved by the U.S. Forest Service, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources or a conservation organization.

In doing so, Boeing will accomplish what conservationists have been trying to do for years - protect the vitally important forest.

Boeing's move was precipitated by its decision to lease 500 acres of land at Charleston International Airport. Its plans for the property involve filling in about 154 acres of wetlands, which it will have to mitigate.

Instead of looking for the easiest way to do that, Boeing asked various environmental nonprofits, including the Coastal Conservation League, and federal, state and local environmental agencies to find areas for wetlands mitigation that would have a significant environmental impact.

Environmentalists for years have been concerned about privately owned property within the Francis Marion Forest - specifically the possible development of those parcels.

The fear is that foresters would not be allowed to do controlled burning in the forest with houses adjacent. Controlled burning is critical to the health of longleaf pines, which now exists only in a handful of places, including Francis Marion.

By purchasing three large pieces of property - the Nebo tract, Keystone and part of Fairlawn - Boeing is reducing significantly the chances for such development. All will be conserved, Nebo as a park and the others as natural green space.

In addition to longleaf pines, the conservation effort will offer protection to more than 400 species of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles and 1,600 species of plants, including 12 types of orchids and 12 species of carnivorous plants.

Last year, a much-anticipated deal fell through to use $12 million of Charleston County's Greenbelt funds to purchase and conserve Fairlawn's 8,000 acres along I'On Swamp near Awendaw. It was a huge disappointment. Fairlawn is the largest piece of privately held land inside the Francis Marion Forest. That acquisition would have gone a long way toward completing a ring of protected land around Charleston. Boeing's purchase enhances the likelihood that ultimately Charleston will become the only metropolitan area of its size on the East Coast to be embedded in green.

The huge corporation's huge land acquisition also indicates that its commitment to the Charleston area goes beyond the assembly line.

It turned a regulatory penalty into an opportunity to enhance and protect the natural beauty and wildlife for which the Lowcountry is known.