Wild, nearby; five designated areas near Charleston (copy)

The vast Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge is one of five federal designated wilderness areas near Charleston. File

The vast island seascape of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge just gained a first tiny foothold on what could be its future.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has acquired its first real tract on the mainland, a 64-acre parcel of land along Bulls Island Road en route to the Garris Public Boat Landing. The modest spread of wetlands and pines isn't much — it's largely surrounded by private property and doesn't connect to the landing that serves as a prime access to the island refuge.

But the purchase is a big step in an effort to move the refuge inland, to keep habitat for species that are losing ground as its barrier islands are overrun by rising seas. The tract connects to the Francis Marion National Forest land and a tract owned by The Nature Conservancy.

It will be open to the public and trails created, said Sarah Dawsey, refuge manager.

"It is the first piece of what we're working for," she said.

"It's a minimal conservation. Nevertheless, it's an extremely important one," said naturalist John Brubaker, who lives nearby. "It's exactly the opposite of what is necessary (to do) on The Battery in Charleston to protect the people (from flooding)."

Backing off Bulls Bay will be costly. Cape Romain, which has long been sought-after "country" real estate, is now getting pressed from the south by high-dollar Mount Pleasant exurbs. The White tract, as the property is called, was bought for $770,000 using federal Land and Water Conservation funds that were appropriated a few years back.

"Any tract on the mainland right now is a valuable tract for us," Dawsey said.

Cape Romain might be the most vital trove of undeveloped coast in the Southeast — 64,000 acres of ocean interspersed with about 10,000 acres of islands. The beauty is matchless, the value enormous. The seascape is elemental to the Lowcountry environs, wildlife and quality of life.

The islands are the nesting and feeding grounds for countless critters, such as threatened sea turtles and shorebirds species. But prime habitats such as Cape and Bulls islands have begun to wash away.

About one third of the sea turtle nests laid from North Carolina to Georgia each year are on Cape Island, which recent storms have overwashed and split into three. A now-overwashing freshwater pond on Bulls draws more than 50 species of birds, including spectacular species such as the white pelican and roseate spoonbill.

The closing was handled by The Open Space Institute — a nonprofit, landscape-scale conservation group that is becoming more active in the Lowcountry. The institute recently turned over to the service Pappy's Island, a modest hammock island along the Intracoastal Waterway near McClellanville.

The 140-acre clump of marsh and sand, one of the few nearshore islands, could become one of the refuge's prime nesting grounds as the outer island like Cape and Bulls gradually wash away.

Obscure Pappy’s Island the future of Cape Romain refuge (copy)

More than a mile of Cape Island beach was lost to damage from Hurricane Irene in 2011. The Cape Romain barrier island is the most important sea turtle nesting ground in three states. File

The institute also has closed on the final piece of the Fairlawn tract near Mount Pleasant, which had been the largest piece of privately held land inside the Francis Marion forest. The 1,550-acre purchase completes a 5,605-acre, $17 million dollar public land acquisition paid for by wetlands mitigation payments from Boeing and other industries.

The institute also has turned over to the U.S. Forest Service the Brick Church tract, 340 acres surrounded by Francis Marion National Forest land near McClellanville. The church, also known as St. James Santee Brick Church, dates to 1768. The tract had been owned by White Oak Forestry, a subsidiary of Evening Post Industries, which owns The Post and Courier.

The institute, the federal agencies and other groups are working to consolidate the adjacent national forest and wildlife refuge, filling in gaps between public land with easements or purchases, to conserve the natural area as the coast develops.

The public and protected lands "represent almost 1 million acres of globally important habitat," said Patrick Moore, a project manager for the institute. 

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