Delicate balance: Careful management helps keep ACE Basin beautiful, thriving

Travis Folk walks through a field of grass that at one time was just pine trees.

Brad Nettles // The Post and Courier

Travis Folk knows that conservation in the Ace Basin requires environmental stewardship and good management practices.

GREEN POND -- Paddling into a narrow finger of Cuckold Creek, Travis Folk regards a wooden rice trunk with an almost proprietary sense of admiration.

"Except for one innovation -- the flashboard riser that was introduced in the 1900s -- we haven't improved on the design of this valve since the 1700s," he said.

Before him is an expanse of rice field looking much like it might have 200 years ago, with the trunk, as it always has, controlling water flow into and out of the field.

Here in the ACE Basin, the tension between managed conservation and the impulse to preserve it, as is, dominates Folk's thoughts.

Named for the confluence of the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers (into the larger St. Helena Sound), the ACE Basin is one of the largest undeveloped estuaries along the Atlantic coast. Situated chiefly in Colleton and Beaufort counties, its 350,000 acres are well known for their natural beauty and ecological diversity, encompassing marshes, wetlands, hardwood forests, riverine systems and the

various fauna they harbor.

"What's really unique about the ACE Basin is its embodiment of three things," said Folk, a wildlife biologist who earned his doctorate at Auburn University. "One is ecological goals. Second is the historical aspect of all these properties, with rice fields as a good example of how the conservation of historical features allows us to meet our ecological goals. Third is aesthetics. These are beautiful places. And it's important that they stay that way."

A partner in Folk Land Management, a woodland and wildlife consultancy, Folk, 34, also serves on the board of trustees of the South Carolina Nature Conservancy. For Folk, also an adjunct professor at USC-Salkehatchie, it's all about "environmental stewardship."

"It's developing an understanding of what can be here, what should be here, and what do we want to be here. Whether we like it or not, going back to pristine pre-Colombian bottomland hardwood forest habitat is highly unlikely. That's long gone."

Folk manages natural resource properties for a number of clients. Much of his time is spent venturing out in the basin by boat and motor vehicle. A confirmed history buff, he also is a specialist in rice field culture, having spent years collecting and studying artifacts.

The distinction between conservation and preservation is a critical one, he said.

"I object to some environmental groups that have a very preservationist attitude -- let's not touch it, let's not do anything -- because that's just not going to work. We are a part of this landscape. Land conservation to benefit water resources is a huge issue, for example. So it isn't completely altruistic. We need aspects of the landscape to be managed well in order to sustain ourselves."

Some confusion on the part of the public still surrounds the subject of management efforts like prescribed fires, said Dean Harrigal of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, project manager for the nearby Donnelly Wildlife Management Area.

"Fire in springtime in the Lowcountry has its place, especially in the piney woods. People from other parts of the country don't always understand this. So it becomes a hot-button issue. But these piney woods are going to burn; it's just a matter of when. If you take a passive approach, you will wind up with a situation that is going to be much worse than it would be if actively managed."

The move to preserve

In the 1970s and '80s, as development pressures increased, concerned citizens petitioned local, state and federal authorities to assist with preserving the basin. In 1988 the ACE Basin Task Force was born, and then the ACE Basin Project, composed of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, and other private groups and companies.

This public-private partnership led to the establishment of 134,000 acres of land called the ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve, under the umbrella of the ACE Basin Project. Today it contains the NERR and the ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge.

Yet after decades of use as industrial timberlands owned by companies, such as MeadWestvaco, Georgia Pacific and International Paper, some properties are biological deserts with just a layer of pine needles, Folk said.

"But properly managed, a southern pine forest can exhibit 'phenomenal' botanical diversity, with grassy understories that provide great habitat for songbirds, reptiles and other species."

Encroachment

Invasive species remain a problem, and they have a similar profile, plant or animal: they grow rapidly, mature quickly, are highly tolerant of harsh conditions and are quick to take over an area. Currently, the region is dealing with the ambrosia beetle, which is attacking red bay plants up and down South Carolina and Georgia, and, in wetlands, the plants Chinese tallow and Phragmites. The latter is a large perennial grass that can grow anywhere it's wet, spreads by seed or rhizomes, and can overtake a wetland ecosystem in short order, using up the nutrients and shading out other plants.

The natural resource community has to use expensive herbicides to deal with the problem, Harrigal said. "We used to not consider herbicides as tools in a habitat manager's toolbox, but when you're trying to take back a habitat and return it to a manageable ecosystem, the right ones are invaluable."

Funding issues

Of considerable concern at present is the specter of a falloff in federal funding for conservation efforts.

"One of the biggest things a federal cut would impact are the state wildlife grants which provide management funding for the non-hunted wildlife species," Harrigal said. Some private landowners also need federal assistance, said Folk. Not all are wealthy, so they benefit from Cost Share programs, where the owner performs a natural resource management action and federal funds help foot the bill.

Another issue is purchasing land when it comes up for sale. If private interests aren't in the market to buy, the Fish & Wildlife Service can step in and purchase the land, putting it into the refuge if they have the federal funds.

"The Nature Conservancy works real hard on these focus areas like the basin, but it can't foot the bill in perpetuity, constantly buying these tracts and handing it over to F&W," Folk said. "Luckily, in the ACE Basin there is a real conservation ethic. And to be quite simple, it's a desirable address, and that helps real estate values."