YONGE'S ISLAND -- More than 300 people gathered Sunday under the great oaks of Willtown Bluff Plantation to celebrate the start of a movement to save a swath of the Lowcountry from encroaching development.
They were sheltered from the cold rain by big white canvas canopies, but even an array of gas-powered space heaters couldn't completely fend off the chill near the Edisto River, as the mercury hovered in the low 50s.
But the spirit was upbeat as they celebrated the 20th anniversary of the ACE Basin Project with bluegrass music, shrimp and grits and a few short speeches.
The ACE Basin includes nearly 400,000 acres of mostly undeveloped coastal land along the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers between Charleston and Beaufort. About half that land is under voluntary conservation easement, meaning it can never be subject to high-density development.
It all started with a meeting 20 years ago under the same trees, according to ACE Basin Task Force Chairman Charles Lane. A handful of conservationists and landowners got together to counter a plan for more than 1,000 houses around a golf course on Edisto Island about three miles down the river.
"It was a line in the sand," said Lane, who grew up on Willtown Bluff. "It was either going to look like Hilton Head, or it was going to continue to look like Edisto."
The project was killed when its permit was revoked as a violation of the Clean Water Act. Eventually, the Nature Conservancy of South Carolina bought the land.
Coy Johnston of Ducks Unlimited and philanthropist Gaylord Donnelley were also at the initial meeting. It was Sept. 13, 1989, a week before Hurricane Hugo, Johnston recalled.
The movement eventually included 113 private landowners, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, Lowcountry Open Land Trust, the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, MeadWestvaco and Nemours Wildlife Foundation.
Department of Natural Resources Director John Frampton called the partnership unprecedented.
"This is probably the first project in the United States that really had the private landowners, state, federal government and nonprofits all working together," he said. "It's become a model across the country."
Matthew Connolly, retired executive director of Ducks Unlimited, also extolled the partnership in his keynote address Sunday.
"You've done something very unique," he said. "What you've done here in the ACE Basin is the embodiment of what Americans can do."