HARLEYVILLE — Down a single-lane gravel path off a two-lane country road in upper Dorchester County lies an 18,500-acre bird and wildlife sanctuary.

The Audubon Society’s Francis Beidler Forest is not the kind of place a visitor would find by accident, but it's starting to feel the crunch of encroaching development all around it. 

New industries and neighborhoods are going up around the edges of the 45,000-acre swamp and roads are being widened to accommodate more traffic.

“This has always been a very rural part of Dorchester County, and the neighborhood is starting to change,” said Sanctuary Manager Mike Dawson.

Goose Creek residents Richard and Suzanne Hernandez appreciate the quiet of Beidler Forest, the world’s largest virgin cypress-tupelo swamp forest, and they have visited at least weekly for the past two years.

“We come for the variety of flora and fauna that we see here,” said Richard Hernandez, a photography hobbyist. “Every season is different.”

They’ve seen otters, snakes and deer in the small slice of swamp that’s open to the public.

Many times, as the couple walks the 1¾-mile boardwalk through the swamp, the only sounds they hear are the buzz of singing cicadas and the plop of cypress balls bouncing to the ground.

The boardwalk takes visitors by a cypress knee that looks like Madonna and child, the second oldest confirmed cypress in the world (1,500 years old) and the still-visible remnants of damage from 1989’s Hurricane Hugo and 2016’s Hurricane Matthew.

“You never know what you’re going to find,” Suzanne Hernandez said, making their 40-minute each way drive worthwhile.

But Beidler Forest and the surrounding Four Holes Swamp are feeling the crunch of encroaching development.

New growth

Dorchester County gained an estimated 2,985 residents during the 12 months ending July 1, 2017, according to the Census Bureau. Most of it has been in the lower part of the county, but development is now reaching up U.S. Highway 78 to areas like Ridgeville and Harleyville. 

The county needs the economic growth to fund infrastructure and emergency services, said Dorchester County Council Chairman Jay Byars. But it realizes the value of Beidler.

David Chinnis, chairman of County Council’s planning, building and development committee, said he believes in the rights of those who own property bordering the swamp, but the county also has to look at the big picture.

“Preserving the character of the county is important to me, making sure we have green space,” he said. “But we can’t stop people from coming in. That’s just not the way it works.”

More than 7,000 people moved to Berkeley County between mid-2016 and mid-2017, boosting its population to almost 218,000, according to the Census Bureau. That’s 22.5 percent more than in 2010. 

Much of that growth is concentrated around U.S. Highway 176 — also the east side of Four Holes — where mega-developments Cane Bay, Carnes Crossroads and Nexton are expected to attract about 75,000 residents over the next couple of decades.

Old growth

In the late 1960s, the Audubon Society and Nature Conservancy together purchased 3,400 acres from the family of Francis Beidler, a conservationist who died in 1924. Since then, they have bought land as it has become available, growing the preserved area to more than five times its original size.

Four Holes Swamp starts near Orangeburg and flows about 60 miles to the Edisto River at Givhans Ferry State Park. It encompasses about 45,000 acres.

Roughly half of that is owned by Audubon or protected under conservation easements by individual landowners. Beidler leases about 10,000 acres to hunt clubs that help oversee the land, maintain access roads and control the deer and feral pig populations.

“By and large, the vast majority of the sanctuary is just that. Keep people out, let nature take its course and just protect it,” Dawson said. “It’s one of the few swamps around that hasn’t been too totally scrambled up and messed with over time.”

It and the Congaree Swamp are the only two significant stands of old-growth forest left in South Carolina, he said.

“I don’t know how long it’ll be before we are surrounded by mini-farms and sub-developments, so we’ve been trying to acquire land, trying to get a little buffer to put some space between us and what might be coming down the pike,” Dawson said.

Friendly neighbors

To the east of Four Holes Swamp is the Camp Hall Commerce Park, which comprises approximately 6,781 acres. Volvo Cars North America is building its first North American car factory on 2,880 acres of the site, and Santee Cooper has 1,387 acres for industrial development and 1,950 acres of preserved land.

“Volvo has environmental concern in their DNA,” Dawson said. “You know they’re going to do what they’re doing wonderfully well and set the bar really high, and the beauty of Camp Hall being owned by Santee Cooper is, Santee Cooper is not a real estate development company. They’re a public utility, so they’re not as concerned about maximizing every dollar out of every square inch of land.

“They are willing to work with us and other environmental groups to do what I hope will become a model for a really environmentally friendly industrial park, and set the bar really high for everybody else.”

Santee Cooper is restoring 365 acres of wetlands, including re-establishing the headwaters of Timothy Creek. Walking and biking trails will provide employee and community access across the preserved acreage.

“It may actually improve water quality in the area as opposed to screwing things up worse,” Dawson said.

It’s the families that will be moving to the area to work at Volvo and its many ancillary industries that worry Dawson.

“It’s not like there are developments popping up along our boundary yet,” Dawson said. “But I can imagine it being an amenity to a development or to a land sale. They can say, ‘Oh, we’ve got a wildlife sanctuary in your backyard.’ Just what we need is a zillion people along our boundary looking at us as a playground.”

Boosting numbers

That said, Dawson wouldn’t mind drawing a few more people to visit Beidler every year.

About 10,000 to 12,000 people visit the forest annually, about half of them are schoolchildren on field trips. Half the visitors come in March, April and May. The numbers have stayed stagnant for most of Dawson’s 38 years working there.

“We have not been able to figure out the best way to bump it up,” he said. “We don’t want a million people, but if I could double the visitation but spread it throughout the year, that would be great.”

Visitors, who pay daily rates up to $10 each, see just a sliver of the forest through an education building and boardwalk. Beidler also offers programs such as bird walks, night walks and guided canoe trips.

“In the deep and dark distant past, people thought of swamps as wastelands that were buggy, snakey, gatory, muddy, smelly, polluted and monster-infested,” he said. “The thing you wanted to do was drain them, fill them, do whatever you could for them to not be wetlands anymore. Now we’ve realized the folly of that. The beauty of this place is what a great job it does of dispelling those myths.”

Unlike Berkeley County’s now closed Cypress Gardens, Beidler Forest has never been the backdrop for a movie.

In the early 1980s, Dawson was approached by the makers of the movie “Swamp Thing.”

“They were trying to make the swamp look spooky and we thought this is just not really compatible with what we’re doing and trying to get people to think about swamps, so we turned it down and they went to Cypress Gardens,” Dawson said.

In 2000, "The Patriot" checked out Beidler before deciding to also go to Cypress Gardens.

“We were once a part of a National Geographic educational series, but that’s about our only claim to fame,” Dawson said.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 843-937-5713. Follow her on Twitter @brindge.