Designated wilderness areas

South Carolina

Cape Romain

Congaree National Park

Ellicott Rock

Hell Hole Bay

Little Wambaw Swamp

Wambaw Creek

Wambaw Swamp

Georgia

Big Frog

Blackbeard Island

Blood Mountain

Brasstown

Cohutta

Cumberland Island

Ellicott Rock

Mark Trail

Okefenokee

Raven Cliffs

Rich Mountain

Southern Nantahala Wilderness

Tray Mountain

Wolf Island

North Carolina

Birkhead Mountains

Catfish Lake South

Ellicott Rock

Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock

Linville Gorge

Middle Prong

Pocosin

Pond Pine

Sheep Ridge

Shining Rock

Southern Nantahala

Source: wilderness.net

Trekking the Hell Hole Swamp wilderness gets prickly.

"A web of fallen limbs with branch spikes sticking out, and you moved from that into a web of briars," said Col. James Rembert, English teacher emeritus at The Citadel, about a nighttime hike he led cadets on after Hurricane Hugo. "Black dark and overhead cover. It took an hour and a half to walk a mile. People got all scarred up."

Hiking Little Wambaw Swamp isn't much easier.

"You're walking knee deep, waist deep through the swamp and you come into a wall of briars. It might be 12-feet high, 20-feet thick and 50-feet wide," Rembert said. The two isolated tracts, in other words, are every bit wilderness. "It's exciting to be in there because there's nothing else like it," he said.

When someone says "wilderness area," images come to mind of the icy Arctic or the high Rockies. So it might be a surprise to realize that five federally designated wilderness areas are within an hour of Charleston.

This month is the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act, a law that ranks among the most championed and challenged in federal government. It had its origins in a conservation movement more than a half-century earlier; its future is still fought over.

The original act established the National Wilderness Preservation System with more than 9 million acres of wildlands. The areas now comprise nearly 110 million acres.

South Carolina might not be thought of as a "wilderness state," but the five Lowcountry wilderness areas combined - more than 42,000 acres - are nearly as big as the White Mountain National Forest, the largest wilderness area in the East.

They are environs as vast as the sweeping oceanscape of the islands of Cape Romain, as thorny as Hell Hole Swamp, as primeval as the blackwater Wambaw Creek, Wambaw and Little Wambaw swamps. The cape is a national wildlife refuge run by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the others are part of the Francis Marion National Forest, run by the U.S. Forest Service.

They are remote enough that "extinct" panther sightings have been reported, if not confirmed. The environs are haunted by wildlife, such as white pelican and swallow-tailed kites, deer, black bears, bobcats, feral hogs, wild turkey and alligators.

"We saw more than 40 alligators," said Steve Collum, of the Palmetto Conservation Foundation, about a paddle trip down the creek a few years back. One was at least 12 feet long, Collum estimated.

The five tracts are among seven designated areas in the state, along with Congaree National Park Wilderness near Columbia and Ellicott Rock Wilderness along the Chattooga River at the Georgia border. Among nearby states, Georgia has 14 areas, including part of Elliott Rock; North Carolina has 12.

The act defines wildernesses as "areas where the earth and its communities of life are left unchanged by people, where the primary forces of nature are in control, and where people themselves are visitors who do not remain," according to Wilderness50, a coalition of stakeholder groups organized to commemorate the event.

More than 750 wilderness areas now have been designated among 44 states and Puerto Rico, managed among four federal agencies.

The idea of setting aside essentially roadless land was as controversial in September 1964, when the Wilderness Act was signed, as it is now. The act went through 60 drafts before it was approved. Ever since, logging interests and others continue to wage legal battles to open up access and use of the areas.

The divide between securing land and using it is as wide now as the chasm in the politics of the country itself. More than 20 new wildernesses now are in congressional bills. Only two have been approved since 2010, according to The Associated Press. Also in front of Congress are bills to open up areas to uses as varied as ranching and copper mining.

Even in the Lowcountry, the areas' managers tread a delicate line balancing conservation with an increasing demand on the areas for a variety of recreations and commerce.

So why bother? Why make exclusive a briar swamp as aptly named as Hell Hole? There's the scenic value, for sure, the contribution to groundwater, wildlife and the overall ecosystem. Wilderness areas are habitats, essentially nurseries for plants and animals.

But the value is subtler than that. It's the spirited challenge. Those scratched-up cadets kept coming back for more. So did the fellow faculty members who tagged along.

"It was so difficult, they felt they were really doing something," said Rembert, a former Army Special Forces leader. "I found it fascinating that I could go through any terrain. I felt a sense of power that I could go anywhere in South Carolina. I felt a sense of beauty, remoteness and a sense of what it was like for early Americans."

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