As day broke in the ACE Basin, flocks of tundra swans began to fly from a pond. They rose into a sky where hundreds on hundreds of birds already flew -- egrets and blue herons, white ibis and wood storks. In a nearby tree a bald eagle pair watched. Not too far away, a pair of the almost extinct whooping cranes began to feed.

That winter morning a few years back wasn't an aberration. It's life in the rice fields, those places that a lot of people think of as private duck hunting preserves. The web of diked rice fields spanning tidal waters is life support for nearly every kind of bird in the Lowcountry, not to mention a variety of other animals like alligator, fish, even frogs.

The span of fields is a huge nursery and feeding ground for a lot of the species that make the Lowcountry a wildlife wonder.

So, the "rice fields accord" is more than just a hard-fought consensus to protect duck fields. The consensus reached among wealthy plantation owners, environmentalists and regulatory agencies could lead to saving more of the Colonial-era rice fields from ruin. That would benefit everyone who prizes the Lowcountry.

It might be the start of a new day for the man-made wetlands.

"It's the first time everybody agreed on the importance of these impoundments," said Charles Lane, the Edisto River property owner who was one of the organizers of the ACE Basin. The basin is an ecological preserve of nearly a quarter-million acres along the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers between Charleston and Beaufort. The delta land is full of the fields.

If it had not been for a desire to protect rice fields, the basin "could look like (developed) Florida," Lane said. "So (the accord) is a big deal."

The understanding paved the way to streamline Army Corps of Engineers' permits to repair impoundment dikes, a revision that allows owners to make timely repairs when a hurricane or storm tide breaches the dike, instead of laboring through the current, costly yearlong process. The proposal is now in public hearing.

"We look forward to reviewing" the revised Army Corps permits, said Dan Burger of S.C. Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.

"I think there's been a recognition by these agencies that rice fields are a valuable cultural, historic and natural resource," Lane said.

Rice fields now cover nearly 70,000 acres across the state's coast in patches skirting tidal rivers. They are walled-off impoundments with gates that are raised or lowered to draw tidal water in or out for growing rice. A product of the Colonial era, they are one of the features that makes the Lowcountry look like nothing but water at times when viewed from the sky.

After rice played out as a crop, a lot of the sluice gates and levees themselves were abandoned and fell apart. More than half the original rice acreage has broken open and become overgrown.

State laws discourage the re-impoundment of fallen-in rice fields; permits are tough to win and hinge on factors like keeping acreage to a minimum and the condition of existing dikes. The issue has been a bone of contention for years among agencies, owners and environmentalists.

Some property owners and others want to be able to re-dike the fields for waterfowl habitat and land uses. Some regulators and others say the practice could infringe on a variety of things, including public boating, fishing and the water quality of the estuaries. In the middle are environmentalists who see benefits in both.

As recently as 2005, a committee drawn from those groups to review the state laws fell apart after a single meeting, as participants generally conceded that no agreement could be reached. It was a consequence of what Lane called "failure after failure" by owners' groups to communicate the greater value of their fields.

The owners changed their focus from trying to rebuild lost fields to protecting the existing fields, Lane said. The accord was forged in a recent series of meetings among the groups.

Rice fields "did eliminate some tidal and brackish marsh. But the positives outweigh the negatives," said Nathan Dias of the Cape Romain Bird Observatory. "It's hard to find an order of birds that doesn't benefit. Some of the biggest alligators we have in South Carolina are found in the rice fields. Things got slanted toward waterfowl and game birds, but that's what pays the bill. Rice fields are extraordinarily valuable."

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Rice field accord

What: Regulators and coastal rice field owners have reached an understanding that could make getting permits quicker and easier, allowing the owners to make timely repairs to impoundments when a hurricane or storm tide breaches a dike, instead of laboring through the current, costly yearlong process.

status: A proposed revision of a Army Corps of Engineers permit is now in public hearing. State regulators, looking to revise their own permit process, plan to review it.

AT STAKE: Rice fields provide a nursery, resting or feeding ground for nearly every kind of bird in the Lowcountry, as well as animals such as alligator, fish, even frogs. More than half the original Colonial era fields have been abandoned and fallen in.