Green corridor

Norman Brunswig, executive director of Audubon South Carolina, explains how the Mims Tract at Bridge Lake is important to the Four Holes Swamp Watershed in the Edisto River Basin. Audubon South Carolina bought the 400-acre tract in 2007.

RIDGEVILLE — The ACE Basin is the landmark public and private conservation effort that preserved more than a quarter-million wetland acres along the developing Lowcountry coast.

What's happening in Four Holes Swamp right now might be the next big step inland.

A surge of interest in protecting land along the swamp has property owners and conservation groups alike talking for the first time about the possibility of creating a connected, protected corridor along its 40-mile run through the woodsy, rural heart of Dorchester County.

For years it was little more than a dream for conservation-minded people who realized the importance of Four Holes. Seen on a map now, the protected tracts along the lower swamp are starting to resemble pearls on a chain.

Keeping a wide swath of swamp undeveloped would enhance everything from a drinking-water source to the quality of life and property values of the county and surrounding environs.

"A great big, green infrastructure, all the things that are critical to quality of life and the ecological health of our area," said Norman Brunswig, executive director of Audubon South Carolina, which owns the Beidler Forest sanctuary in the swamp.

The swamp, in places two miles wide, feeds one-third of the flow of water into the Edisto River.

The Edisto feeds two-thirds of the water into the ACE Basin. The swamp is as clean now as it was when first tested in the 1970s and restores that quality within half a year after spills, Brunswig said.

For wildlife and natural habitat, the swamp links the basin environs nearly all the way to the Santee Cooper lakes. It's a big reason why creatures and a natural ambience are abundant in the counties outside Charleston.

The effort being considered would maintain that corridor for fish, game, wildlife and its scenic environs.

A corridor would complement state gamelands and parks along the Edisto, as well as large-tract conserved lands, such as MeadWestvaco's East Edisto project downstream.

The Edisto is considered the longest free-flowing blackwater river in the world. The river is Dorchester County's southern border.

Interest was stoked last year when Norfolk Southern put under conservation easement its signature 12,000-acre Brosnan Forest longleaf pine tract. Now that interest has turned into action.

Since then, the Lowcountry Open Land Trust has turned around three easements totaling 400 acres and has been approached by more than 50 other property owners, said Will Haynie, executive director.

The ardor for conserving it "is beginning to rival the enthusiasm for the ACE Basin," Haynie said.

Meanwhile, Dorchester County Council on Monday approved a $10,000 grant to leverage a far larger federal grant for Audubon South Carolina to buy 300 acres along the swamp. The purchase would be the first of a multi-phase acquisition.

The National Audubon Society is a private nonprofit organization conserving and restoring natural ecosystems.

County Council Chairman Jamie Feltner compared the grant to a similar bequest last year that leveraged federal money for Audubon to purchase a 700-plus acre tract in the upper county nearby. County partnership was a key to winning the federal grant.

"To me it's a win-win. We can preserve more of the lands the public wants to preserve. The taxpayers have been very vocal about trying to preserve lands. And opponents of conservation want compensation for the lands," he said.

Audubon expects to close on the 300 acres early next year. It could end up with1,000 acres if all phases are acquired.

Conservation of the swampland has been a hard-sought goal of Audubon South Carolina, one that began years ago as an effort to provide a buffer for its cypress-bottom Beidler sanctuary. The effort stuttered along in fits and starts until the past few years.

Then, the Brosnan easment stirred up the love of the land among the farming and hunting families in upper Dorchester County who were clinging to properties uneasily as development encroached.

"It was huge," Brunswig said. "You cannot overestimate the importance of it. It made everyone think bigger."

Edsel Taylor, who recently conserved 200 acres along the swamp near the Edisto River, said what happened with Brosnan was an eye-opener for him. Taylor, warden of the MacDougall Correctional Institution, grew up roaming the swamp country.

"It looked like it might be possible to start connecting some of the larger properties," he said. "I can't think of anything better for wildlife and nature in general. At least I'd have a stake (in it)."

Brunswig said he could never have imagined a protected corridor along the swamp when he took over Beidler in 1973. Audubon and the Nature Conservancy now jointly hold 16,000 acres abutting Four Holes Swamp. Another 6,000 acres are under conservation easement.

It's only a tiny fraction of the 430,000-acre watershed, Brunswig said. But, "interestingly enough, it's a really good 5 percent."