The countryside around Four Holes Swamp is largely farms, and a decade ago heads would shake when the notion of conservation easements was mentioned. Stewardship for the growers went hand in hand with owning property.
So for years, conservation advocates would point to the vast stretches of protected river lands to the south and north, the ACE Basin, the Francis Marion National Forest. Then they'd point in frustration to the huge gaps they couldn't fill between, largely along Four Holes Swamp in Dorchester and Berkeley counties — the corridor where the urban footprint of Charleston was headed.
For wildlife and natural habitat, the swamp creates a natural river land corridor from the basin nearly all the way to Lake Moultrie — in other words, nearly all the way around the Charleston metro area — the long-sought outer greenbelt.
Keeping it "green" enhances everything from drinking water to the quality of life as well as property values of everyone in the Charleston metro area.
Now that gap is all but closed. The city is the only sizable metropolitan area of its size on the East Coast virtually wrapped in green. Other areas still are relatively verdant, Beaufort for instance. But the land isn't protected, just undeveloped so far.
The greenbelt is thanks largely to a little yellow bird that flits through the blackwater bottoms of Beidler Forest Sanctuary near Harleyville, owned by the South Carolina chapter of the National Audubon Society.
The Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust recently announced the Big Cypress easement signing, protecting 1,232 acres of privately owned bottom land, including 3½ miles of riverfront, along Four Holes Swamp upstream of Interstate 95.
With the easement, that weave of protected watershed now extends along 30 of 34 miles of the heart of the swamp, from Big Cypress to the Edisto River. It won't be heavily built on. The ramifications could be huge as Charleston grows.
The swamp feeds one-third of the flow of water in the Edisto River. The Edisto feeds two-thirds of the water into the ACE Basin. The protected environs will be a big reason why creatures and natural ambience continue to be abundant in the region.
Fifteen years ago the greenbelt wasn't much more than a pipe dream. Mention that to Sharon Richardson and she can't help but give a little smile. Richardson, today the sanctuary's director, sat down in 2001 with then-director Norm Brunswig, who laid out an ambitious plan: protect the sanctuary by protecting as much as possible the swamp flowing in and out of it.
"It was idealistic. The (state) Conservation Bank was not around," she said, meaning there was little grant money to be found to purchase land. The two knew all too well the reticence of landholders around them, as well as the relentless creep of timbering, industries and residences toward the swamp and Beidler.
All they really had going for them was the prothonotary warbler, an eye-catching yellow-bellied bird about the size of a person's palm.
They knew the warbler, like a host of other swamp birds, needed a minimum 20,000 acres of contiguous habitat to keep a healthy population. And they knew if the habitat was healthy for the warbler, it would be healthy for the hardwood, native plants, deer, blackwater fish and other swamp life prized by the people who lived along the Four Holes area.
They began a campaign to persuade neighboring landowners to conserve, using that reasoning: What's good for us is good for your land. They focused on purchasing tracts outright, but because Beidler was a conserved property, the staffers also helped familiarize neighbors with the strange notion of easements.
One by one, neighbors signed on. Holcombe Bell heard about the idea when he was invited by Brunswig to an early presentation at the Beidler center.
He lives and farms in what its families call The Bend near Harleyville, so called because the east-flowing Four Holes make a sweeping bend to the south there to flow to the Edisto. And like a lot of others he was a little skeptical at first of what he called "the spiel."
He came around. A family member had just sold farmland across the road to a buyer who began building residences.
"I said, 'I don't want that to happen to mine,'" Bell recalled. He protected 425 acres in 2004, and when people asked why, he told them. "I don't intend for this to become a dirt pit, a housing development or anything like that," he said.
Over the next decade, other family members joined him; the Bell family has now put more than 1,700 acres in easement. That same thing started happening all along the 30-mile stretch. The notion began to take hold, like it has through the country.
More than 56 million acres are now conserved in easements, according to the National Land Trust Census. That's twice the land in national parks in the Lower 48 states.
"You see your neighbors doing it. Neighbors talk and you hear the benefits, the things they enjoyed growing up they want their grandchildren to enjoy," said Mac Baughman, whose family owns land they conserved along Four Holes.
Meanwhile, Charleston-based conservation groups had coalesced around the greenbelt concept, keying off the the landmark success of the ACE — which is more than 200,000 acres of river delta protected by a network of public and private interests, much of it with easements. It became a priority of their work.
As conserved land purchases, easements and mitigation grew, the critical link that is Four Holes slowly came together. When Raleigh West, the Berkeley conservancy director, or Ashley Demosthenes, Lowcountry Open Land Trust director, talk about Audubon's Beidler Forest, they call it the anchor.
The swamp "is where the growth is heading. It's the top of the arch of the greenbelt. Audubon has invested a great deal up there. It's a really spectacular protected corridor of swampland that's so magnificent," Demosthenes said.
The job isn't done, though, they said. The land conserved on Four Holes is mostly a thin strip that turns with the swamp back to the west, and it has those 4 miles of gaps. One of them has just been filled in, 177 acres along U.S. 78 at the bridge over the swamp.
The property was turned over the Audubon after its purchase by Volvo to compensate for wetlands disrupted for the plant the car company is building nearby. It's part of about 2,500 acres that will be conserved under that mitigation agreement, all of them in the swamp or its watershed.
Other gaps in the greenbelt remain, including across the rapidly developing Berkeley County countryside from the swamp to Lake Moultrie.
"The conservation work around Four Holes Swamp, while impressive, will not secure this area in the future. We must do much more," said Dana Beach, Coastal Conservation League director.
Beach, who was among the early advocates for the greenbelt, anticipates the Charleston urban area to expand as far as Interstate 95 — now 25 miles away — and beyond. He would like tighter zoning in the area, better road and utility planning and even more land protection.
"The most threatened rural landscape in South Carolina is the area between the Edisto River and Lakes Marion and Moultrie," Beach said. "Growth pressures there exceed anywhere else in the state, and possibly in the Southeast."