Saving Sandy Island: Nature Conservancy takes ownership of about 9,000 acres

Sandy Island residents pass each other on the road from the waterfront into the island's interior. The S.C. Department of Transportation transferred ownership of the land on Friday to The Nature Conservancy of South Carolina.

Georgetown — For 15 years, The Nature Conservancy of South Carolina has managed and protected about 9,000 acres of Sandy Island.

As of Friday, it officially owns that land.

The S.C. Department of Transportation transferred ownership of the land to the conservancy, making good on a deal that dates back to 1996.

Kristine Hart, spokeswoman for the conservancy, said the deal formalizes the group's ownership and 'really protects the land, permanently.''

The island has three very different landscapes, said Furman Long, the island's land steward. The center portion is made up of mostly long-leaf pine trees, which are becoming more rare, another third is abandoned rice fields and the bottom third of the land has hardwood trees, like bald cypress and gum trees.

'All three of them are very unique,' he said.

The DOT bought the land in December 1996 as a wetland mitigation bank so it could move forward with highway projects along the coast, including S.C. Highway 22 and S.C. Highway 31.

When road projects disturb wetlands, 2 to 5 acres of wetlands must be preserved for each acre affected. The DOT has used up all the 'mitigation credits' on the Sandy Island acreage, said Pete Poore, the DOT's director of communications.

He said the department agreed to give it to the conservancy when the credits ran out.

The DOT bought the land for about $10 million to which the conservancy contributed $1 million. The conservancy also agreed to manage the land at no cost to the state.

The conservancy will now own the majority of the island's 12,000 acres, with the 3,000 remaining acres mostly near the southern tip of the island owned by individual island residents.

The conservancy will now be able to apply for grants to preserve and study the island, Long said. When the land was owned by the state the conservancy was not eligible for grants.

'We could get grants for managing the red-cockaded woodpeckers,' he said, '[and] grants for controlled burning.'

Jerry Oakley, the county councilman for the area, said the transfer is 'the culmination of a lot of years of effort to make a very good thing happen.''