Berkeley County wants to protect what makes it special before it's paved over or cleared for condos and strip malls.

The 35th fastest growing county in the nation, it is taking stock of its forests, lakes, marshes, swamps and other green spaces.

"Berkeley County is shifting from a very rural county to a more developed county," said Karen Firehock, executive director of the Green Infrastructure Center, a Charlottesville, Va.,-based nonprofit. "We don't want to do that without giving thought to future needs because one of the key things that attracts people, especially people who are well-educated and have high paying jobs, is greener communities."

The county was recently selected by the U.S. Forest Service and South Carolina Forestry Commission as the pilot project for the state's Green Infrastructure Guide, which will show other counties how to assess their assets too.

The Green Infrastructure Center, which was formed in 2006 to help local governments, land trusts and developers evaluate their assets, is working with Berkeley County's Planning & Zoning department on the project.

"We have a lot of different natural areas in the county, from marshlands to the national forests and swamps," said Berkeley County Planning Director Eric Greenway.

Berkeley County is "relatable to the rest of the state," said Frances Waite, coastal region urban forester for the South Carolina Forestry Commission. "Berkeley County has different sized municipalities. There's a lake there; there's U.S. Forest Service land; there's farmland. It is a county that has good resources, and we also knew that Berkeley County would find the information very useful."

While the guide is by the government and for the government, it will impact "anyone who is a sportsman, anyone who's a hunter, anyone who is concerned about ecology or just healthy environments," said Firehock. "We can think of our natural resources - trees, streams, lakes, wetlands, soils - as infrastructure because they provide things we need such as shade, good air quality, drinking water, food and recreation.

We need to know where our best forests, wetlands or farms are located in order to better protect them."

The project involves locating and mapping the county's green infrastructure so that officials can use the results to make more informed decisions regarding future development.

"Maintaining the delicate balance of infrastructure expansion with the sustainability of natural resources has always been on the forefront of our minds," said Berkeley County Supervisor Dan Davis. The project will help "preserve Berkeley County's beauty and resources as new industries come in and the population of the county continues to grow," he said.

Not being proactive can be a mistake, Firehock said.

"When counties don't consider that soon enough, they approve this development here or there, but the developers don't know that maybe there could be a trail connection, and in the end they're like, 'Now we've developed everything and we don't have any room to put in these amenities that would make our communities more vibrant.'"

The study will not only look at where outdoor opportunities exist for activities like hiking, hunting and fishing, but also at future possibilities, she said. It also will allow the creation of specialty maps that will show the best locations for agriculture or recreational activities or where wildlife is located.

"Having maps may sound boring, but they actually give us a lot of data to make much more informed decisions," Firehock said. "Anybody who pays taxes wants to have a good investment. If you protect that investment better in the first place, it will be much cheaper in the long run."

The study is expected to be completed by early 2015, she said. The maps will be available through Berkeley County's website.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.