Yawkey Wildlife Center (copy)

Marshes cover much of the islands at the Yawkey Wildlife Center near Georgetown. A state budget proviso would allow hunting from navigable waters around the preserve. Paul Zoeller/Staff

Yawkey Wildlife Center stretches across three islands near Georgetown — 24,000 acres of unspoiled maritime forests and marshes. It is one of the state’s most significant nature preserves, home not only to grand natural beauty but also a breeding ground for ducks and other wildlife, and decades of alligator research.

After a 2013 visit, The Post and Courier’s Bo Petersen described an idyllic scene: “At times, ducks comb the islands by the thousands. Some of the oldest alligators in the state live there, because Yawkey forbade hunting them as far back as the 1930s. ... White pelicans flock. Bizarrely blazoned roseate spoonbills can be found, along with more commonly seen wading birds such as wood storks and white ibis. … The islands’ 16 miles of beach make up a large chunk of some 70 miles of undeveloped beach across the state.”

But change could be coming to Yawkey Center. Last month, the Senate tacked a proviso onto the state budget to allow waterfowl and alligator hunting on the tidal creeks between and within the preserve’s North, South and Cat islands. A budget proviso lasts only a year, but in a year, the damage could be done.

For the creatures that call the islands home, hunting would take the refuge out of their refuge. It would endanger the alligator research. Critics say it also would put at risk the state’s control of the islands, and a $1 million annual grant to maintain the property, which under the terms of Tom Yawkey’s will must be protected from hunting. If the state breached the agreement, ownership of the property could revert to a Yawkey trust.

Georgetown Sen. Stephen Goldfinch wrote the proviso to prohibit the state Department of Natural Resources from “enforcing any provisions of a sanctuary agreement that prohibits hunting or fishing within navigable waters.” He told us that his concern is less about hunting and fishing than about preserving access to public beaches and navigable waters.

Those are legitimate concerns, as neither the islands’ beaches nor the waters surrounding the islands have ever belonged to the Yawkey family or any other individuals. If the state allows the Yawkey Foundation to dictate that hunting from those waters is prohibited, he asks, what’s to stop other foundations and businesses from dictating that public waterways that front their property be declared off limits to hunters and fishers?

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Mr. Goldfinch said if DNR wants to declare the waters around Yawkey Center a sanctuary — that is, to ban fishing and hunting in the area — it needs to go through the appropriate regulatory process to do that. We agree. That is precisely what the agency should do. And Mr. Goldfinch should not exercise the constitutionally questionable powers that individual legislators use to veto sanctuary designations within their districts.

In the meantime, the House should reject Mr. Goldfinch’s proviso this year, and if it doesn’t, then Gov. Henry McMaster should veto it. The area has been off limits to hunting and fishing for several years now; maintaining the status quo for one more year won’t set the dangerous precedent that Mr. Goldfinch fears. But it will give our state the time to put protections in place through a more appropriate process — and a process that will provide the protections that most of us would like to see.

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