The dreamscape is as singular as it seemed impossible — a ring of “green” conserved land around urban Charleston.
A little more than a decade ago, it was a conservation goal that didn't seem attainable in the booming metropolitan suburbs.
But link after sizable link keeps falling into place, despite tight money and shrinking swaths of undeveloped property.
The 6,000-acre Fairlawn Plantation would be the latest in a series of landmark conservation achievements virtually uninterrupted by the 2008 economic collapse.
It would join recently protected tracts, such as the 12,000-acre Brosnan Forest in Dorchester County, and tens of thousands of acres along the Edisto River in Dorchester and Charleston counties that could be conserved as part of MeadWestvaco's East Edisto project.
Those milestones have been accompanied by any number of smaller conservation purchases, easements and mitigations.
About 800,000 acres have now been conserved. The state has only 20 million acres.
If the ring could be closed, it would make Charleston the only metropolitan area of its size on the East Coast to be embedded in green.
The dreamscape began to be talked about among conservationists more than a decade ago, as the ACE Basin came into its own. Nature and land-trust groups began accumulating acreage “set-asides.”
The concept took hold of creating “islands” — stepping-stone tracts and corridors of undeveloped land that give wildlife and plants room to move and breed.
The prestigious ACE Basin had emerged to Charleston's south, an ecological preserve of nearly a quarter-million acres along the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers. Francis Marion National Forest and Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge were huge public land holdings to the north.
Conservationists began looking to piece together open lands in between, to create that corridor.
The green ring vision “came as the mosaic started to fill out,” said Hugh Lane, Charleston County Greenbelt Board chairman,
It was pie-in-the-sky stuff, with the metro area booming and forced by its rivers to develop along Interstate 26, cutting that potential corridor in two.
But piece after piece has been placed along the Edisto, Cooper and Ashley rivers and Cypress and Four Holes swamps.
The hand-in-hand, private-public partnership that forged the chain is all but unique to the Lowcountry and has been championed across the nation.
Some 70 percent of South Carolina's conserved lands are in the Lowcountry, said Angela Halfacre, Furman University earth and environmental science professor and author of “A Delicate Balance,” about the Lowcountry's conservation work for the past quarter century.
From the late 1980s to present day, conserved lands here have kept pace with developed lands, she said.
“The efforts have been successful creating that 'delicate balance' between economic development and environmental protection,” she said. That, in turn has enhanced quality of life for residents and value for the area's tourism-based economy.
“Most people (here) don't realize how significant this conservation culture is in the country,” she said.
The green ring is still far from a done deal.
The last long span without significant conservations is now a development-pressed stretch of pineland and swamps between the outskirts of Summerville and Moncks Corner, cut across by I-26.
Lane said if that stretch could be linked, “we would be the only urban area on the East Coast surrounded by a greenbelt.”
Closing the link will be tough, but “in some ways not as tough as the first part, because now we know how to do it,” said Dana Beach of the Coastal Conservation League.
A narrower neck of land is likely to be conserved across the interstate's transportation and industrial corridor, he said.
But, “we're farther down the field already than I think even the most optimistic hoped for. Landscape level conservation is something we've done better than any other state in the nation. I don't think anyone anticipated it would happen this rapidly.”