A Delicate Balance. By Angela C. Halfacre. University of South Carolina Press. 253 pages. $29.95.
Something magical happened in the Lowcountry in the past two decades, and because of it, this place remains like few others: miles of unbroken marshland and islands, soaring wood stork, coolers of game fish and shellfish.
Antagonistic landholders, conservationists and regulators realized they had something greater in common than their differences: They love where they live.
As development began to sprawl over the vast South Carolina seascape, the disparate groups started banding together to conserve its environs.
The movement started with seemingly disconnected “tipping points” such as the ACE Basin Task Force, the landmark public-private partnership formed to oppose plans to build a large marina in remote tidelands. The task force has conserved more than 350,000 acres in the wilds and wildlife rich delta of the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers south of Charleston.
Similar and offshoot efforts evolved, working with each other to conserve so far some 800,000 acres in the Lowcountry, nearly 1 acre of every 20 in the state, and thousands more along the rest of the coast.
The movement has been one-of-a-kind, an eye opener waking the populace and development communities to more environmentally sustainable projects. It’s become a model imitated across the nation.
It may well be looked back on as one of the pivotal environmental movements of our time.
If it succeeds.
That’s what “A Delicate Balance” is about.
Angela Halfacre, Furman University political science professor and former College of Charleston professor, dissects the makings of what she describes as an ethic of sustainability in the Lowcountry, an ethic that moved most of the region’s stakeholders “beyond the conventional — and often polarizing — polarity between conservationists and developers.”
The book ranges across topics from Hilton Head Island’s vaunted, flawed Sea Pines Plantation to the roadside stands of the Sweetgrass Heritage Preservation Society.
Halfacre takes a hard look at the phenomenon and its vulnerabilities, including shortcomings in diversity and the social tradition of a small, well-heeled “elite” community that is at the heart of it.
“The distinctive strength of the culture of conservation in coastal South Carolina has been its informal network of associations, collaborations and partnerships connected by a shared desire to preserve the region’s heritage,” she writes. “Such a close-knit socially homogenous network, however, can unravel over time.”
The book touches on the “seductive charm” of a coast whose “inviting waters, palpable grace and stunning views generate tenacious loyalties.” Halfacre sprinkles her telling with natural imagery and human stories.
But “A Delicate Balance” is a scholarly work complete with 33 pages of footnotes and a 39-page bibliography.
Halfacre doesn’t revel in the magic; she details how the rabbit was pulled out of the hat.
The book provides an exhaustive record of the singular Lowcountry conservation movement, an invaluable primer on how the movement has managed contemporary conflicts between development and conservation.
“My hope is that the following pages both inform and enlighten the debate,” she writes in the introduction.
“A Delicate Balance” does that.
Reviewer Bo Petersen is an environmental reporter at The Post and Courier.