Black River conserved land

Nearly all the riverfront bottom on both banks has been conserved with these groups from the Highway 41 bridge outside Andrews to Mount Pleasant Plantation 10 miles downstream:

Group Acres River frontage

Ducks Unlimited 2,986 3.2 miles

The Nature Conservancy 2,460 10.6 miles

Wetland Reserve Program 1,331 3 miles

Pee Dee Land Trust 980 2.5 miles

Source: The Nature Conservancy

ANDREWS - Quietly magical, the swallowtailed kite glides for miles without flicking a wing. To see a pair sweeping past a huge 1,000-year-old cypress is to glimpse the beauty of the Black River.

What's going on along the river an hour north of Charleston might be the quietest and most significant conservation effort around. Already some 47,000 acres have been put into conservation easement - virtually all of it by private property owners. The effort is beginning to rival the championed private-public partnership that created the quarter-million-acre preserve in the ACE Basin south of Charleston.

The Nature Conservancy just worked out a conservation easement on 600 acres, including nearly four miles of river frontage on private land outside Andrews. This is in a critical area of cypress bottoms known as "the narrows," downstream of the S.C. 41 bridge. Nearly 8,000 acres and most of the riverfront on both banks are now protected for 10 miles downstream.

The environs are considered the tidal reach heart of place. The bottoms "filter," or clean freshwater. Because of that they are a rich plant and insect food source; they act as nurseries for any number of wildlife species that are native to the greater Lowcountry.

The bottoms, in other words, is one of the ventricles that keeps the Lowcountry beating.

"It's the most important type of forest to protect and there's so little old growth left," said Maria Whitehead of the Nature Conservancy.

To understand how important the bottoms are to Charleston and the Lowcountry, you need to appreciate the swallowtailed kite and David Stahle's core-sampling work on old growth cypress.

Glistening

The swallowtailed kite is a sleek white raptor with distinctive black fringe on its long wings and a forked tail. The wings and tail work so efficiently that the bird can glide to a stop in midair. It's so keenly adapted to flight it almost never touches the ground. It might be the most graceful bird in the air.

The raptor is so mobile that after years of sighting reports, researchers still don't know enough about how many there are to know whether it's an endangered species.

But conservationists do know that their habitat - the old hardwood bottoms and insect-fluttering forage fields that are found along the narrows - is gradually being lost to development and industries such as logging.

The cypress bottoms of the Black River are considered one of the most important breeding areas in the state for kite, Whitehead said.

They also are the spark that awakened surrounding property owners to the value of conserving their lands.

Whitehead is the Winyah Bay and Pee Dee River basin project director for the Nature Conservancy, which now holds more than 2,000 acres along the narrows under her purview. About half that acreage came in one fell swoop, after Bill Baughman slogged neck deep into the bottoms during the winter.

Baughman worked for the then-Westvaco timber company, which had just bought 1,276 acres of the cypress bottoms as part of a larger tract. After the survey he took part in, the company realized the swamp acreage stayed too wet to grow commercial pine and didn't have much market value. Baughman was on the board of the conservancy at the time and helped put together a gifting of it to the conservancy in 1986.

"Use it for canoe trips, kayak paddling," he said the thinking was at the time. The company didn't know what else to do with it. The conservancy had its concerns.

"A lot of time it's a burden to be gifted land" you then have to manage, Whitehead said. But the bottom turned about to be low maintenance, mostly just a matter of letting the trees grow. And that gifting caught the attention of nearby private landowners - usually leery of signing easements to restrict the use of the land. One by one, they have come around to the value of leaving the bottoms be and providing buffer land.

"Who knew that particular transaction would be the foundation of what you're seeing today?" asked Ashley Demosthenes, of the Lowcountry Open Land Trust.

Baughman didn't see it coming, he said. "It's fantastic."

As Whitehead kayaked the narrows on a recent afternoon, the deep blackwater glistening like skin, she watched for the kite. It's spring and the birds have begun to move in.

Cypress rings

Much of the old growth cypress along the narrows was logged in the past, but a few stands and individual trees remain that are considered millennials, a thousand years or older. The giants loom over the place.

"They are among the most valuable tree ring chronology ever made," Stahle said.

Stahle is a University of Arkansas geo-sciences professor who studies core samples, boring into old growth cypress trees. The annual growth rings of the trees are considered one of the most accurate records of dry and wet years before the last century of documented records. By coring trees, researchers can produce a comparative record of how climate varied before the 20th century.

"It tells us the range of natural climate variability over the Carolinas, pre-industrial," Stahle said. That puts today's climate variations into keener perspective. As just one example, the El Nino-La Nina warming and cooling variations in Pacific waters factor into wetter or drier years in the Southeast, as well as climate across the hemisphere. Before the past century of weather records in the Carolinas, "we see mega droughts in the tree rings years, longer and worse than the 100-year record," Stahle said. The narrows are in the national interest as well as the state's interest, he said.

'Mirror-like'

A paddle through the Black River narrows now passes a largely connected corridor of conserved land, opening to the flooded bottoms of the Black Swamp Preserve - those galvanizing donated Westvaco acres.

"They are a marvelous place. The mirror-like blackwater is the most remarkable thing that you ever put your eyes on," Stahle said, and it would have been lost without the collaboration of private landholders, the Nature Conservancy and others.

"Ultimately, protecting river corridors is essential for recreation, water quality, for scenic value, wildlife. It's multiple benefits," Demosthenes said. "Opportunities like (the Black River narrows) don't come up a lot. Those are places that won't be there if we don't protect them. The Black River is really not that far away, and for me it's invaluable to get out to an area like that where you feel completely alone."

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