SUMMERVILLE - Not long ago, a strategy session on wetlands would have been held by conservationists focused on tightening, not loosening restrictions. But as a recent ad hoc resident's committee meeting at Dorchester County Council showed, when it comes to conservation, the tables have turned.
How much is enough?
Public or private conservation efforts have now protected more than three quarters of a million acres around Charleston - nearly one-third of the land mass of Charleston, Berkeley Dorchester and Colleton counties.
Isn't that enough? Not nearly, conservation advocates say.
The idea behind a greenbelt is less a belt than corridors, literally natural paths to provide for landscape, plants and animals, they say. The percentage of land that needs to be protected varies according to the area's needs. And the focus in the Lowcountry coast and riverlands is along its vast web of waterways because they are the natural corridors.
"In order to protect our sense of place and ourselves as a region, we need to do more," said Ashley Demosthenes, of Lowcountry Open Land Trust.
The rough formula calculated in studies of successful protection efforts is about one-third of the land, said Dana Beach, S.C. Coastal Conservation League. But coastal Charleston can't be assessed in isolation.
The more accurate gauge is 1.2 million conserved acres so far along the entire coast, that protects only about one-sixth of the area, he said. The acreage so far "is a lot of land, but there's a lot of holes in it," including in its riverland heart around Charleston, Beach said. And the job now gets harder, as escalating development leaves fewer and fewer significant tracts open.
"It's taken 100 years to get to where we are now," Beach said. "It may take another half century to do the rest. Do we have that kind of time? We don't know. But we do know better is better. We've done a fantastic job so far. We just need to maintain it."
After decades of keeping a wary distance from business interests that environmentalists have often been at odds with, conservation groups are now turning to partnerships with those same entities to keep their work going. It's a matter of funding and an attempt to maintain momentum.
Public money has shrunk dramatically from the days of large public purchases and private conservation easements that now protect some 750,000 acres around Charleston, and more than 1 million acres on the coast.
Meanwhile, a big share of public sentiment has been seized by groups opposing the use of public money for conservation, and who say existing restrictions are too burdensome.
The turn to partnerships already had been in the works, but the 2008 recession and recent government environmental law see-sawing made it virtually a mandate.
Now, with the economy rebounding and development ramping up again, according to one local business recruiter, the partnerships are again being championed.
Conservation groups also are forging closer ties with community groups, the third key in a partnership chain to attract funding and legislative support.
Maybe nowhere is the need more apparent than in Dorchester County, where residents traditionally have been as anti-tax, keep-government-off-our-backs as they have been protective of their rural pinelands.
When the effort to establish a greenbelt of protected land around Charleston began to gain momentum two decades ago, conservationists would unroll maps and point to the glaring gap in upper Dorchester, where development was booming. The county, with its natural corridor of the Edisto and Ashley Rivers, became a prime conservation focus.
At the same time, Dorchester became one of the early hotbeds of the private property rights movement. Conservation easements, much less public land purchases, have been hard to come by.
The rivers that make the county so important to the greenbelt also put it among eight coastal counties held to critical area wetlands standards that are mandated to protect water quality - even though Dorchester and neighboring Berkeley County are the only ones of the eight that have no coast.
The county is transversed by at least four large swamps that drain either to the Edisto or the Ashley, and in turn Lowcountry estuaries. It is rife with wetlands and officials say the wetlands rules have hampered economic development.
"If somebody came in today and wanted to build a 3,000-square-foot (industrial) building on a site, I'm not sure I could produce one (free of wetlands)," John Baggett, county economic development director, told the committee.
Dorchester County Council wants its ad hoc committee to come back with a report arguing that all counties in the state should be held to the same wetlands standards as a matter of fairness, or that coastal counties with no coastline shouldn't be as restricted as those that have one, said Councilman David Chinnis and Chairman Bill Hearn.
"We should be treated by the same measuring stick (as the rest of the state)," said Chinnis, chairman of the council planning committee that formed the ad hoc committee. Council plans to present the report to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The report would come as Gov. Nikki Haley works to roll back regulatory barriers that could harm economic growth. DHEC officials would not comment on the County Council report until it sees it, said spokesman Mark Plowden.
That's the climate conservation efforts operate in today.
It's no coincidence that two of the largest conserved tracts in the Lowcountry this year have been because Boeing had to meet state wetland mitigation mandates, in order for the aircraft manufacturer to expand its plant at Charleston International Airport in North Charleston.
In return for permits to fill wetlands, Boeing purchased and turned over rights to the 2,241-acre Fairlawn Plantation tract near Awendaw and the 1,677-acre Keystone tract in Berkeley County, both buffering the Francis Marion National Forest.
Conservation groups had waged earlier campaigns to keep each from being developed, but didn't have the money to stop it.
The ensuing easements were worked out by Lowcountry Open Land Trust. Easements are legal agreements between a landowner and a land trust or government agency, in which the owner agrees to permanently limit how the land is used, or developed, to protect its conservation values.
The trust historically has operated discreetly, quietly working with private owners to put natural corridor land under easement. But its staff just completed a long range, public visioning plan based on what the community at large would like to see accomplished.
"We need to evolve as circumstances evolve," said Ashley Demosthenes, the trust's conservation director. "We can't do this in isolation. The future of conservation really depends on healthy partnerships."
Private conservation easements, though, really use public money, noted Dana Beach, S.C. Coastal Conservation League director. They depend on tax credits and other public revenue concessions.
"Some form of public funding at every level - local, state, federal - has always had the lead role in land protection here. The big sources of (conservation) money have always been government and probably always will be government," he said.
Now, the huge, intact Lowcountry tracts that became public land such as the Francis Marion National Forest, largely are under development or already protected. The focus is turning to smaller, connecting tracts. Conservation is going to cost more and owners are becoming less inclined to deed away their investment, Beach said.
The move to parterships "isn't some sea change. This is an evolution, an oscillatory process with the availability of public funding," he said. "We're dealing more in the market realities now."
Meanwhile, back on that Dorchester council dais, the strategy session devolved into an exchange of complaints about government interference - much as environmentalist meetings used to devolve into complaints of corporate disregard.
Homebuilder and committee chairman Mike Murphree talks about how he's afraid to scoop out or fill in a ditch for construction - inadvertently creating or destroying a wetland. What the committee wants, he said, is for the wetland designations and permit decisions to weigh the potential environmental benefit against the potential job losses.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.
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