Two conservation groups have purchased a large portion of the Fairlawn Plantation near Awendaw in an effort to preserve the property within the Francis Marion National Forest.
The Open Space Institute Land Trust Inc. and The Nature Conservancy paid nearly $5.4 million for the 2,241 acres, according to property records. Almost all of the land is in Charleston County. A sliver is in Berkeley County.
The purchase was funded by aerospace giant Boeing Co.
The property is part of the wetlands mitigation plan that company has agreed to as part of a planned 500-acre expansion of its jet-making campus at Charleston International Airport.
The Open Space Institute Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy will evenly share ownership of the newly purchased land, which is made up of two large tracts split by several acres that are privately owned.
Officials for the buyers said Wednesday that the two groups will own the land for up to five years, then turn it over to the U.S. Forest Service.
There's also a chance the groups could purchase more of the 6,000-acre plantation, which is the largest piece of privately held land inside the 259,000-acre forest. They are still talking with the owners, said Sarah Hartman, director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy.
"We're in constant contact with them," Hartman said Wednesday. "They want to work the conservation community."
Mark L. Robertson, executive director of the conservancy's South Carolina chapter, said the groups will make improvements on the two properties, which were largely used for the timber industry.
He added that they will also evaluate how to allow public access to the land.
"The landowners have been great stewards of the property, but we will do some restoration," he said. That will include controlled burns and plantings of longleaf pine trees, Robertson added.
The acquisition by the two groups was applauded by other conservationists.
"It's a wonderful outcome for a property that has been at risk for more than a decade," said Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, a Charleston group that has advocated for preservation of the national park.
Charleston County was supposed to buy the entire 6,000-acre Fairlawn property for $12 million about two years ago under its Greenbelt land-preservation program.
The deal collapsed when a group of former owners claimed they had exclusive hunting rights on the property, which could have prohibited public access for recreational purposes for decades.
This week's purchase by the two conservation groups will uphold the hunting rights for the former owners, Robertson said.
Boeing has pledged to preserve a total of 3,618 acres critical to the health of the national forest in exchange for filling wetlands in North Charleston.
Other nearby properties in Boeing's preservation effort include the Keystone and Nebo tracts, which have been identified as critical to thwarting development that could endanger the Francis Marion's efforts to re-establish native longleaf pine ecosystems.
Earlier this year, The Lowcountry Open Land Trust paid $6.7 million for 1,677 acres of the Keystone tract along S.C. Highway 41 in Huger on behalf of Boeing, which has said it will turn acquired acreage over to be preserved by the Forest Service, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources or a conservation organization.
The growth of homes near the forest has been seen as an issue because controlled burns are needed to maintain the health of the longleaf pine, which exists in few places.
The national forest also is home 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.
Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.
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