longleaf Brosnan Forest

A stand of longleaf pine at Brosnan Forest in Dorchester County similar to trees on Tibwin II tract. 

If the growth of the Charleston area seems unstoppable now, it was perhaps even more so in the years immediately preceding the Great Recession. That’s part of what made the early 2008 purchase of 900 acres adjacent to the Francis Marion National Forest such a valuable decision.

The land, near McClellanville and dubbed the Tibwin II tract, had been held by the Nature Conservancy since then and partly restored as a longleaf pine forest. Until Thursday when it entered public hands as part of the federal National Forest system.

It’s a major victory for Lowcountry residents, and for a crucial natural ecosystem that supports hundreds of native plant and animal species. And it wouldn’t have been possible without two absolutely critical public funds — the Charleston County Greenbelt and the South Carolina Conservation Bank — both of which deserve the strongest ongoing support.

The Conservation Bank in particular is in jeopardy of disappearing. It’s nearly out of funds and if state lawmakers don’t pass legislation to reauthorize the fund in the next year, a sunset clause will go into effect and eliminate it.

That would be an incredible tragedy for the people of South Carolina. The Conservation Bank has provided money to purchase or place conservation easements on 300,000 acres of acres of unspoiled land across the state. Doing so protects fragile natural environments, critical watersheds, animal habitats and more.

Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, has introduced a bill to reauthorize the bank. It merits overwhelming support.

Similarly, the Charleston County Greenbelt is expected to benefit from a cash infusion related to the half-cent sales tax voters approved in November. County councilmembers should make sure it gets every penny it’s entitled to.

The Greenbelt protects properties on the edge of Charleston County, providing a buffer against urban sprawl and a healthier Lowcountry environment.

The Tibwin II tract, for example, was previously used for a commercial loblolly pine farm. When the land’s owners decided to sell, they marked it as having development potential.

Instead, the Nature Conservancy purchased it and has used a combination of clear-cutting, controlled burning and herbicide application to coax the property back to its original status as a longleaf pine forest. That process takes years, of course, and it’s not over.

But restoring and preserving habitats like longleaf pine forests helps undo centuries of industrial and agricultural use that decimated the nationwide prevalence of a critical habitat for a variety of native plant and animal species. Only about 5 percent of the Southeast’s original longleaf pine forests remain, and ours is the only region on earth in which they can grow.

Ideally, properties covered by public funds through the Conservation Bank or the Greenbelt would allow for public use with minimal disruption of natural habitats. That’s the case in the Tibwin II tract. In fact, its potential for connectivity with recreational resources like the Palmetto Trail helped earn it federal financial support.

But even easements on private land offer tremendous public benefit in ensuring greener spaces, cleaner air, purer water and healthier wildlife.

Those things are essential for thriving communities — and they’re tough to get back once they’re gone.

The state Legislature should reauthorize the Conservation Bank. Charleston County Council should refresh Greenbelt funds. And partnerships like the ones between the Nature Conservancy and local, state and federal governments should be encouraged.

The Lowcountry’s natural landscapes are unique and beautiful. They’re part of the region’s identity and essential to its survival. They must be protected.

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