CAINHOY - MaeRe Skinner was born along the Wando River. She has watched the rural environs and way of life she loves chewed up, piece by piece, by development all her life. She is now 65 years old.

"In my lifetime I have seen Clements Ferry (Road) go from a dirt road to a paved road. It was this beautiful, pristine land. When Interstate 526 came through, our quality of life changed. Now our Wando River is going to be gone from what we know," she said.

Mile after mile of tidal rivers like the Wando, marsh and woods running to the beach - these are the environs that are the Lowcountry.

From Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and the Francis Marion National Forest in the north, to the vast conserved plantation estuaries of the ACE Basin in the south, riverlands are the heart of the place.

They are the key to the seemingly piecemeal efforts to conserve open land here.

The "greenbelt" vision espoused by conservationists more than a decade ago is to swaddle the Charleston-Berkeley-Dorchester urban core in a ring of woods and wetlands. If it succeeds, the environs would keep that singular feel of a city in the midst of coastal riverlands rather than a cityscape.

Piece by piece, conservationists, communities, businesses and private owners are stringing together corridors and patches of protected land across the Edisto, Ashley and Cooper rivers, so the landscape created by them isn't lost incrementally - tract by tract - to urban and suburban development.

It is painstaking, often costly work. Somebody has to grant the money to pay for a conservation easement - essentially a contract that restricts how much property can be developed. And the till isn't all that large. The cost of easements vary by the price of the land, and the willingness of owners to lose future revenue to preserve the current environment.

The various groups are well along in the effort, with as much as three-quarters of a million acres of private or public lands under some form of protection so far.

The vision is what drives the concern over how the Cainhoy Plantation develops. The plantation lies along the East Cooper River branch as well as the Wando. Some 9,000 acres of private land already have been put under conservation easement in the East Cooper area between Cainhoy and the national forest, but another 9,000 remain, not including Cainhoy Plantation.

The Lowcountry Open Land Trust is working to win more easements as part of the Lowcountry Conservation Initiative, funded in part by a $100,000 BP Foundation grant.

At the plantation, Cainhoy Land & Timber plans a mixed-use development of residences, businesses and parks - including more than 19,000 homes - across approximately 5,000 acres in a plantation that is itself 9,000 acres, with wetlands. Cainhoy, in other words, is a big chunk of the landscape the groups are looking to conserve.

Since I-526, the traditional Cainhoy community has been sold off piece-by-piece, in 30-acre-or-so lots, said Fred Lincoln, longtime community activist. Some 85 percent is gone.

"The community, the rural community, that we know is not there anymore," he said. Cainhoy Plantation "is a massive development. How can we make it something that we can look back on in 30 years and say, 'We made the right decision.' We need to find what's best for the whole community and not just the developer."

The Cainhoy Plantation was one of those places Skinner thought would stay wooded riverlands even as the rest developed. The plans for it "are going to destroy our way of life," she said.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.