Paving over 38 acres of North Charleston wetlands has helped spur the permanent preservation of more than 7,500 acres of forest and swampland throughout the state.

That's the trade-off negotiated between Vought Aircraft Industries and environmental regulators through a complicated deal that took five years of work: the creation of a nonprofit land trust and help from local conservation groups.

The effort came together through what some are calling a ground-breaking preservation process, which basically allowed nonprofit organizations to leverage a $4.75 million state grant to protect land valued at more than $18.1 million

Dallas-based Vought was required by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2005 to come up with a mitigation plan as it cleared acreage for two neighboring plants at Charleston International Airport that now make fuselage sections for the 787 Dreamliner.

"This aircraft facility is a special thing for our state, and for mitigation, we wanted to do something that was equally as important," said John Adams Hodge, an environmental attorney who represented Vought in its wetlands mitigation effort.

The company could have spent the money outright on a single piece of land, he said. Instead, it opted for a much more complicated process.

State and company officials formed the nonprofit Ashley-Cooper Rivers Environmental Trust, which sought conservation proposals from local environmental organizations.

The selected groups, including Ducks Unlimited and a local chapter of the National Audubon Society, found matching money and land from other preservation groups. They also asked for land donations from property owners whose parcels sat near existing preserved areas.

In the end, the collaborative effort has led to the protection of several large parcels, including 3,100 acres near Poplar Grove in Hollywood and 1,152 acres in Beidler Forest.

Nancy Vinson of the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League, who served as the trust's secretary, said the process was complicated and time-consuming but more than worth the effort.

"This is what happens when industries come in on the front end and try to work" with conservation groups, she said.

The original $4.75 million grant was part of a $116 million incentive package the state Commerce Department put together to lure Vought and its Italian business partner, Alenia Aeronautica, to North Charleston. Their local operations were bought out last year by Boeing Co., which will employ at least 3,800 workers on the airport property at an assembly plant it is building for the 787.

In a statement, Gov. Mark Sanford said "it should be noted that this unique mitigation effort played a significant role in the quick advancement" of the $750 million expansion Boeing announced last year because it streamlined the aerospace giant's permitting requirements.

Reach Katy Stech at 937-5549 or kstech@postandcourier.com.