Unlikely collaborations give second wind to Lowcountry conservation

The efforts that save the iconic Angel Oak and other treasured Lowcountry landscapes could become a new model for conservation nationwide.

They’re calling it the Angel Oak effect: a meeting of the minds of unlikely allies that might just be the future of conserving land in the Lowcountry and across the country.

The massive, sprawling, beloved live oak on Johns Island drew people and groups who were otherwise strangers to save its woodland surroundings from being developed. That has become a new model to preserve the region’s singular sea and landscape — mile after mile of marsh and tidal rivers, pineland and beach.

The idea is that conservation groups partner actively with businesses and communities, groups that more than occasionally in the past have been opponents.

Mitigations by Boeing in 2014 and the State Ports Authority in 2015 along the Cooper River basin are its archetype examples. But it began in an unexpected offshoot of the collaborative grassroots movement that gathered in 2012 to protect Angel Oak:

“A lot of people on Johns Island who didn’t know how to talk together are talking together,” said community activist Bill Saunders of Johns Island.

Boeing, the international aircraft company partnered with the Lowcountry Land Trust and other groups to purchase, conserve and turn over to the public the pivotally located, 1,682 Keystone tract at the edge of Francis Marion National Forest.

In an unusual move for a corporation, Boeing came to them. The company, newly established in North Charleston, needed to pay to conserve valued lands, in order to win permits to fill wetlands to build. Officials went looking for groups who knew how and where to do it.

Then, S.C. Ports needed mitigations to offset deepening the Charleston Harbor shipping channel and worked with trust and others to site them in the same Cooper River area. The successes resounded across the country.

“While the model might not be the answer to every project, it has been effective in South Carolina and other states are taking notice,” said Patrick Moore, Ports environmental manager. “Case in point — the Port was recently invited to speak about effective environmental protection strategies at an environmental conference in Sacramento, California.”

The successes came just as the trust and other groups needed a new way to do business.

The Land Trust traditionally has worked low-key with individual private landowners to forge conservation easements, contracts that prohibited some development of the land. But public money shrank dramatically and tax breaks that are a major incentive became harder to make cost effective.

Meanwhile, with more than 1 million acres already in some sort of conservation on the coast and lucrative development booming, interested landowners became harder to win over.

Collaborative partnerships are “the next round of effort,” Bradford Marshall, trust board chairman, said. Suitably enough, the new “model” has its foundation in the acclaimed model that galvanized the conservation of those 1 million acres — the ACE Basin Project.

Twenty-five years ago, a group of plantation owners launched that project with public and conservation agencies, eventually putting more than a quarter-million acres into some sort of private or public conservation in the deltas of the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers south of Charleston.

The singular collaboration at the time was championed as ground-breaking and was widely copied. If there was a flaw, partners would concede later, it’s that more of an effort wasn’t made to engage more interests and communities.

But the scale of landscape protected was an eye-opener for other new groups like the land trust, which had formed among subdivision residents to protect a neighborhood island off the Stono River. The trust grew to work with private owners to conserve more than 100,000 acres in the Lowcountry.

“I don’t think we’d be here today (at the event) if it had not been for the ACE Basin plan,” said Michael Prevost, White Oak Forestry president and previously of The Nature Conservancy. He was one of several speakers at a first-of-its-kind Flourish event held recently by the trust to bring together stakeholders from the Angel Oak, Boeing, Ports efforts and others.

White Oak is an affiliate of Evening Post Industries, the owner of The Post and Courier.

The event, attended by more than 200 people, brainstormed for ways to keep the momentum alive. It was an effort to coalesce “people who live and work here and really care about the mutual benefits spurred by economic development and conservation working together,” said Ashley Demosthenes, trust director.

“In too many places these two sides don’t cooperate. Both sides are looking for it. Large and smaller, we are all trying to figure out how to engage conservation,” she said.

The model comes with its own challenges — including establishing and maintaining trust between parties that are likely to change from project to project, have different objectives, aren’t accustomed to working together and often are wary of each other — as happened with Angel Oak.

“It’s important that everybody understand what everybody else is needing from the beginning,” Leah Krider, Boeing senior counsel, said at the event.

But the payoff eventually could rival the ACE Basin project itself — in a much more crowded and urban Lowcountry. The Boeing mitigations conserved more than 1,600 acres. The Ports mitigations potentially could conserve a lot more. The sense of place and quality of life in the Lowcountry can make the difference, speaker after speaker said at the event.

“It’s critical. You fall in love with this place. It offers so much to so many people n so many diverse places,” Krider said. “There’s something very beautiful here about how people work together very collaboratively.”

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

We're improving out commenting experience.

We’ve temporarily removed comments from articles while we work on a new and better commenting experience. In the meantime, subscribers are encouraged to join the conversation at our Post and Courier Subscribers group on Facebook.