Black River protections to be open to public

Chris Crolley of the South Carolina Outdoor Education Program tries out the fishing in Choppe Creek at the Rocky Point community forest. Provided by Dana Beach

ANDREWS — Jimmy Greene remembers the hug from a friend of his son, a kid from a single-parent home who could not remember ever being hugged by an adult before. And Greene remembers the transformation in the child’s life spurred by camping for the first time at Rocky Point.

“We made a campfire, sat and talked. He had never been camping before, never been to the forest. He didn’t know how to swim,” said Greene, 59. “It changed him.”

Now, Rocky Point might be a first foothold on a new direction in land conservation in the Lowcountry.

The Nature Conservancy and a handful of other groups have just put into conservation easement 462 acres along the singular Black River near Andrews as the first “community forest” in the state — protected woods managed at least partly for public use and education, and at least partly by members of the community where they are located.

The concept is new enough that the State Forestry Commission wasn’t familiar with it. But it’s part of the growing trend in conservation that the conservancy and other groups, such as Lowcountry Land Trust, are turning to.

“Because people realize that if you don’t provide space for people to experience the outdoors they are not going to invest in the future,” said Maria Whitehead of the conservancy.

Rocky Point is a timberland tract including a boat landing on the river along Choppee Creek that had been open for almost 70 years to people in the rural Choppee community and other largely black neighborhoods nearby. It was sold in 2007. The new owner closed the gate and closed off the boat landing.

The landing and grounds had been a focus of the communities, the place to go picnic, Fourth of July celebrations, water sports, field trips.

“On July Fourth it would be packed to capacity,” Greene said of the Choppee community. Losing it “left a gaping hole. That was the only place we had. Without it we have had to bus groups to Huntington or Myrtle Beach state park. That’s expensive, time-consuming and difficult to organize.”

The Black River is prized across the Lowcountry for recreation and fishing because of its rural environs and gleaming blackwater.

Rocky Point will join two recent conservancy purchases with public access as a premium. John’s Lake, a 400-acre tract just downstream of the S.C. Highway 41 bridge, will provide a boat landing in the Black River “Narrows,” a winding stretch through a jungle of wetlands and hardwood bottoms. Rocky Point is downstream of the narrows.

The narrows, flowing in among huge cypress haunted by swallow-tailed kites, are considered the heart of more than 1,700 acres now held by the conservancy. More than 12,000 acres are conserved along the river in the immediate area.

In Conway, the conservancy purchased 494 acres across the Waccamaw River from the city’s Riverwalk as a public recreation and nature exploration area.

Public access is sometimes the hardest conservation to attain because of the complications of managing the sites, Whitehead said.

Rocky Point will be opened to the public at a date to be announced, after the landing is restored and a management agreement worked out. The tract will be managed by Georgetown County partly as a timberland with native longleaf pine planting, but its uses directed by a stakeholders steering group including community members and forestry professionals.

Title will be held by Winyah Rivers Foundation. The Open Space Institute and other groups also participated in finding grants and bequests to pay for it. The conservancy declined to say how much it cost.

Reach Bo Petersen at 843-937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.