Beidler Forest

The 18,000-acre Audubon Center at Beidler Forest wildlife sanctuary is the world’s largest virgin cypress-tupelo swamp forest and a pristine ecosystem untouched for millennia including the cypress knees. Brad Nettles/Staff

Fortunately, the Lowcountry has natural growth boundaries including the ocean, the ACE Basin, the Francis Marion National Forest and Four Holes Swamp. Unfortunately, the Berkeley-Dorchester county line runs through the middle of Four Holes, a 60-mile swath of blackwater wetlands and home to The Audubon Society’s Beidler Forest, the world’s largest virgin Cypress-Tupelo swamp.

And, unlike Charleston County, which has an urban growth boundary and a greenbelt program, the two other counties have fewer protections to keep suburban sprawl from creeping up Intestate 26.

With development closing in on the swamp and Beidler Forest, as well as Cypress Swamp at the headwaters of the Ashley River, it’s time for Berkeley and Dorchester counties to pump the brakes and find a way to coordinate their approaches to regulating such growth.

Both counties have policies and programs meant to guide growth to areas where infrastructure already exists, but there’s little regional cooperation in steering development away from ecologically sensitive Four Holes Swamp, which acts as a sponge and a filter for Lowcountry water sources.

Sharon Richardson, executive director of Audubon South Carolina, said zoning laws needed updating in Dorchester County to keep incompatible uses out of sensitive areas. Low-density zoning has helped buffer the ACE Basin. She also pointed out a need for the restoration of former timberlands abutting the swamp.

The formerly rural area is changing fast, Beidler Forest manager Mike Dawson told Post and Courier reporter Brenda Rindge for a story about encroaching development.

“I don’t know how long it’ll be before we are surrounded by mini-farms and sub-developments,” Mr. Dawson said, “so we’ve been trying to acquire land, trying to get a little buffer to put some space between us and what might be coming down the pike.”

With the tri-county area growing into a virtual city-state, greater governmental cooperation is needed to help shape the region’s future. And protecting Four Holes Swamp and its environs would be an ideal project, for its own sake and for fostering a much-needed regional approach to development.

Conservation groups have long worked together regionally. County governments should follow their lead by coordinating their efforts to package protections — urban growth boundaries, greenbelt programs, low-density zoning and funding for conservation — to preserve our natural resources.

Bart Sabine, a professional forest manager and a member of the Dorchester County Conservation Commission, said county government involvement could help supply the state Department of Transportation with wetlands mitigation projects, which could include conservation easements in the Four Holes area. Wetlands mitigation banks “are pretty much sold out,” he said.

Jason Crowley of the Coastal Conservation League suggested that creating a similar market for transferable development rights could provide a regional framework for incentivizing conservation that reaches across county lines.

Mega-developments permitted just east of Four Holes in Berkeley County are expected to draw in about 75,000 new residents over the next 20 years or so, and getting ahead of the development curve will be crucial in terms of urban planning and growing a sustainable tax base, as well as maintaining biodiversity in the swamps and ensuring clean drinking water supplies drawn from the Ashley and Coopers rivers.

Coordinating efforts to protect swamp land and guide development would be a great start.

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