Mark Twain once said that few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example. A unique and wildly successful campaign to protect the diverse natural sanctuary of South Carolina’s ACE Basin has taken that sentiment to heart.
From duck blinds and deer stands to fishing docks and Lowcountry oyster roasts, private landowners who’ve voluntarily placed conservation easements on their own properties in the historic region are passing the word, one informal conversation at a time, about the imperative to formally protect their lands and traditional ways of life for generations to come.
“They are like apostles,” said Charles Lane, a Charleston real estate developer and founding member of the ACE Basin Task Force, which is devoted to preserving the lush natural lands between Charleston and Beaufort that comprise the confluence of the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto (ACE) rivers for generations to come. “They talk to their neighbors about what they did and why they ought to do it too.” The ACE Basin Task Force formed in 1988 after Lane learned that a thousand-home residential resort and marina were planned on the Edisto River, just three miles from his longtime family home at Willtown Bluff Plantation. Unsettling images of the growing commercial sprawl in popular coastal resort communities filled his head.
“I moved back to Charleston because this is my home and my wife’s home,” he explained. “I am a swamp rat, so I got back on our family farm ─ Willtown.”
Lane rallied private landowners to join forces with The Nature Conservancy of South Carolina, the Coastal Conservation League, Ducks Unlimited, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and others to defeat the proposed development. Having handily slayed that beast, the task force took on a broader conservation vision.
“We were very ambitious,” Lane recalled. “We had a goal of protecting 90,000 acres in the ACE Basin. Now we have protected 203,000 acres, and people are taking us seriously.”
Of the 203,000 protected acres in the ACE Basin, only 79,000 is public land. The rest is privately owned. Lane and his neighbors set the bar high and won. There are more than 140 donated conservation easements in place in the ACE.
“In 1991, my family put an easement on our property, in part because we wanted to lead by example. The team effort has been fantastic. It sets an example of what can be done,” Lane said. “We have 140 landowners with no regrets. People have a sense that they have done something substantially important.”
Willtown Bluff Plantation
As a young girl during World War II, Harriett Van Norte used to visit Willtown, where sometimes she’d stretch out on the banks of the Edisto River to marvel at the ungainly C-47 “Gooney Bird” transports flying low overhead conveying troops and cargo to and from nearby Charleston Army Air Base.
Decades later, it was friend Charles Lane, whose family owned Willtown, who would, in a pay-it-forward gesture, encourage Harriett and her husband, Robert Van Norte, to protect their own nearby family property with a conservation easement.
Harriett’s father, Fred King, had purchased the family property in the 1940s. Her late mother and namesake was a passionate environmentalist, and, when the land passed to Harriett and sister, Rosanne, they wanted to honor their parents’ conservation legacy.
“There were people down there who suggested to Rosanne and Harriett that an easement would be beneficial to everyone, including them,” Robert Van Norte explained. “It was symbiotic really.”
“The property had always been farmed, first by my father and brothers and then by my first cousin,” Harriett explained. “We were not really interested in seeing it developed, but we wanted to take enough income from rent to pay the taxes and upkeep. We also wanted the land to be a memorial to my mom and dad’s efforts to preserve the environment. We even included language in the easement that we would like to build a memorial to them.”
The Van Nortes currently reside near Atlanta. The memorial, which might take the form of a well-crafted gate, hasn’t been built yet but is in the works. Meanwhile, Rosanne’s two sons have an interest in the property. Both love to fish and are considering putting in a low-impact fish camp there. The sisters are confident the sons will be good stewards of the property one day.
“I basically have always felt, because of my mother and father, that the property should not be developed. We saw the potential for large-scale development right next door in another piece of property. It kind of broke my heart, but it didn’t happen that way,” Harriett said. “My greatest concern is being able to maintain the family property so it doesn’t deteriorate in any way. We are getting estimates on eradicating an invasive plant species on the property. We call them ‘popcorn trees.’”
As one of the largest undeveloped watersheds on the East Coast, the ACE Basin is nationally recognized as an irreplaceable natural resource. Promoting traditional land uses, such as managed farming and forestry, will help sustain the area’s valuable rivers, marshes, and wetlands.
“It’s stunning,” Robert Van Norte said. “There are some things that just should be preserved.”
Old Combahee Plantation
Jessica Loring had just settled into a cozy chair on the porch of her Old Combahee Plantation home overlooking Izard’s Creek, a tributary of the Combahee River, with a sweet red cocktail in hand when she noticed something very large floating in the creek. She soon realized it was an 8-foot alligator. The creature did not move aggressively and seemed simply to regard her from a distance with a curious acceptance.
That was four years ago, and the alligator now is a regular visitor for whom Loring has developed an inexplicable affection.
“We call her a she, but I really have no clue. We call her ‘Cosmo’ because the first time I saw her, I was drinking a Cosmopolitan on the porch,” Loring said. “She will stop her ‘cruise by’ and just watch us. She is sort of our resident alligator. I am always nervous on hunting days that someone will shoot her.”
Loring has loved the plantation, nestled in the bucolic ACE Basin of South Carolina, since she started coming here in the 1950s. Her grandfather, C. Leigh Stevens, who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build Auldbrass Plantation, acquired Old Combahee Plantation along with thousands of other acres in Georgia and South Carolina when he purchased the bankrupt Savannah River Lumber Company during the Depression.
The Old Combahee Plantation has a rich history, with boundaries that have remained unchanged since 1754. The property’s oldest trees have shaded local militia and British troops passing through during the American Revolution. They are the same trees that witnessed Harriett Tubman, during the Civil War, help ferry hundreds of slaves down the Combahee River to freedom. These same trees also stood sentry to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as he led the construction of a network of earthen forts, known as “Gregorie’s Line,” to protect the Combahee from Union Troops occupying Beaufort.
“You can see so much of the land as it has existed on the Combahee since the 1700s,” Loring said. The plantation, which has four miles of river frontage, produced mainly indigo and rice until the late 1800s. Early rice planters installed a series of dikes and wooden gate-like “trunks” to regulate water flow to impounded rice crops sprawling across the landscape. The long-abandoned trunks remain scattered throughout Old Combahee. However, many trunks across the former rice fields of the ACE still function as intended to manage water levels for migrating birds. To this day, replacement trunks are made according to the original rice culture era design.
“There are many canals that go through the property that I still kayak on. It’s wonderful,” Loring said. “I spend a lot of time exploring the old dikes and canals. The whole property is really a huge hydraulic machine.”
Loring’s grandfather died in 1962. Her parents, Stanton and Jessica Loring, started the conservation process in 1976 by putting the commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright buildings on the Auldbrass property on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2007, Jessica Loring put a conservation easement on the adjoining Old Combahee Plantation.
“This is really an extraordinary asset, and I want to preserve it for generations,” she said. “My optimal goal is to preserve native wildlife and plants. Old Combahee is in the Red Cockaded Woodpecker Safe Harbor Program. I am interested in protecting migratory bird habitats. I love it, but it’s more about learning about the environment and developing it in the best way to help what is here flourish.”
The tract of land where Richard Orvin keeps a rustic hunting cabin originally was called “Old Dominion.” Orvin’s father and uncle purchased the land in 1941, and the family has used it primarily to raise cattle and for recreation ever since.
“Daddy had the old rice fields on the Edisto rebuilt and stocked with fish, and we would fish and hunt on the land,” Orvin said. The senior Orvin contracted with an engineer to put in two dikes so that 120 acres were enclosed. The family enjoyed the land with few distractions for years.
“Before 2001, Mr. Prevost (Michael Prevost with The Nature Conservancy) contacted us about an easement, and we just kind of sloughed it off,” Orvin recalled. “We didn’t think much about it.”
Eventually, they became aware of the large development in the works nearby along the Edisto. The project’s out-of-state developer even approached the family about buying their land for the expansive resort it was planning. That dose of reality pushed the family to act.
“All that fell through. It just got stopped cold in its tracks,” Orvin explained. “So we contacted the Conservancy and Mike to do an easement.”
In 2007, Orvin’s brother sold his half of the land, which caused some friction between them.
“I won’t lie. We had words about it,” he said. “It hurt our relationship. But we get along fine now. And I still have my part.”
Orvin uses his tract for recreation and plans to hold on to it, if for nothing else the unforgettable experiences it affords.
“On a fishing trip, we saw an osprey go into the water and come up with a small mullet. When it cleared the water, it was about 30-40 feet up with the fish in its beak,” Orvin said. “Two bald eagles came out of a pine tree. One of them aggravated the osprey so bad that it dropped the mullet, and the second eagle caught it in mid-air before it could hit the ground!”
Orvin calls the easement “a good marriage” and recommends easements to people every chance he gets. He even welcomes the annual monitoring inspections.
“We keep it in compliance. I don’t lease it to anybody – never have and never will,” he said. “It’s just for me and the family and friends whoever we take down there.”
Orvin acknowledges that land development is the biggest threat to the ACE Basin, but that’s being resolved one easement at a time. On his own land, the only problem he has encountered is with poachers who take game off the property.
“I do have a reputation that if you are caught on Orvin’s land, you will be prosecuted,” he said. “You need to have a reputation of being a ‘bad ole fella.’ If you let them go, they will just come back.”
20 Years of Conservation
It was only fitting that hundreds of “apostles” would gather where it all started ─ at Willtown ─ to celebrate 20 years of conservation in the ACE Basin last November. Big white canopies that sheltered attendees from the cold rain reminded one of the tent revivals of yesteryear. A bluegrass band and a fresh seafood feast sweetened the observance.
“The energy of the crowd was so celebratory. Everyone was happy to be there and to be a part of this monumental occasion,” said Ashley Demosthenes, associate director of land protection at TNC. “The weather didn’t deter anyone from coming.”
“This is one of The Nature Conservancy’s last great places,” she continued. “The acreage is significant, and the partnership that made it happen is remarkable. It’s truly a unique landscape across the entire country because you have so much collaboration among local, state, and federal partners. But the most honored guests were the small, private landowners.”
Sam Hamilton, the late director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was on hand for the celebration and noted that everyone involved in conservation in the ACE Basin had a shared vision. There are few examples of it anywhere.
“What’s so unique about the ACE is that we used every type of tool that we could to protect it ─ land acquisitions, conservation easements, public-private partnerships, and a little peer pressure,” he said. “I just think it’s a great model of success. The ACE Basin is one of the projects we hold up as an example to all the country. It’s the one we point to.”
Matthew B. Connelly Jr., president emeritus of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and former executive vice president of Ducks Unlimited, said he always loved visiting the ACE Basin, especially with former DU colleague Coy Johnston. He has nothing but admiration for the region’s privately driven conservation success.
“I continue to admire the wonderful conservation work done by the ACE Basin Task Force members,” he said. “Their collegial grassroots-based initiative is a superb template for all to emulate, as the body of their work is truly epic.”
Over the two decades of this remarkable conservation effort, the most compelling challenges have been persuading reluctant landowners to take action ─ and securing funding.
“We were fortunate because we had Sen. Fritz Hollings, who was tremendously supportive, and Sen. Strom Thurmond, who also was interested at the time. So we had two U.S. senators to help with federal appropriations,” explained the Conservancy’s Michael Prevost. “We also had to deal with the different perspectives of the partners. We all had to learn to work together with a common goal and trust that we were working for the long-term conservation of coastal resources. There were some bumps in the road in terms of personalities and political perceptions. But it has turned out to be a nationally recognized model project for multiple levels of public-private collaboration.”
On some levels, he added, it helped that the Task Force was informal and collegiate. There was peer pressure, but not to the point of intimidation.
“The partnership itself is very informal. When we meet every few months, there are no minutes taken,” Demosthenes said. “It is simply a friendly, professional group of partners who break bread together and share ideas about how to further conservation in the ACE Basin. And the success of this partnership is primarily the result of extraordinary private landowner leadership.”
Lane described Task Force members as “very pro-hunting” and focused on the continuation of traditional land uses. Members raise money as a group to support conservation goals.
“We do everything by consensus,” he said. “We found no need to be a legal entity. It has become a way of life and a team effort. We truly function as a partnership. We view this as a common task.”
It’s really impossible to separate the lands and waters of the ACE from the rich history they harbor. The Task Force often used that history to support pro-conservation efforts. Mark Purcell, manager of the Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge (ABNWR), has an office in a plantation house that originally was built in 1828.
“This was a rice plantation. That is a constant theme in the ACE project area,” he said. “We try to tie it all together. The historic rice fields are still managed and look about the same as they did 300 years ago. And wildlife views in the area are interesting. We use the rice culture and plantation history as a nexus to the wildlife and conservation mission that we have here today.”
Purcell says the best thing about the Refuge is its vast diversity of living creatures and land types. The Refuge is home to many bird species, including wood storks, bald eagles, warblers, thrushes, painted buntings, and all kinds of raptors. Non-winged creatures include alligators, feral hogs, deer, many varieties of snake, wild turkey, and fox squirrels. Habitats on the property include saltwater marsh, intertidal freshwater swamps, bottomland forest, and longleaf pine forest.
“Our immediate threat is coastal development. A lot of the eastern seaboard has been pretty well developed. There are few reasonably undeveloped units left, and we are among them,” Purcell explained. “From a more global standpoint, climate change is a threat and what it could do to estuaries. We are trying to initiate and expand upon existing opportunities. We are doing inventory, detailing what species are here. That is the first thing to see what is out there and how it is responding to the changes that are occurring. We also are looking at converting forests to more productive wildlife habitat and achieving carbon sequestration in the process.”
“When visiting the ACE Basin, I would take my grandchildren, who live in Chicago and Boston, to the Donnelley Wildlife Management Area because I know if we walk on the cross dike in front of the Mary's Island Lodge, I could show them a dozen good-sized alligators who would, with predictable curiosity, approach the shore without any timidity,” Connelly said. “I would also show them the ancient rice trunks and canals built by the slaves and indentured Irishmen. They would also see insectivorous plants on the moist floor for the piney woods and learn that these lands and waters played a major role in the Revolutionary War and Civil War.”
Jessica Loring doesn’t think her father, though he fundamentally believed in conservation, fully understood the benefits and flexibility of conservation easements. He worried he might be giving up control.
“He felt that we managed this property better than anyone else, and he didn’t want anyone else controlling it,” she said. “I don’t think he understood that basically you could write your easement any way you want, and you have tremendous flexibility.”
A conservation easement is a voluntary legal contract between a landowner and a qualified land trust or government agency in which the holder agrees to restrict development and certain commercial or industrial uses on the property for the purpose of conservation. The land remains the private property of the landowner. The easement can be sold or donated and is binding on all future owners of the property forever. Easement holders may be eligible for federal or state tax deductions and other financial incentives, which may vary from state to state. An easement also may help reduce estate taxes on the property.
“The easement option helped from an estate planning point of view. There are all sorts of incentives,” Loring said. “I was able to reduce our estate taxes by putting an easement on the property. I am sure not many people have thought of that.”
“A friend in this field once told me that there are three reasons to do an easement: 1) you love your land; 2) you love your land; and 3) you love your land,” said Sarah Hartman, director of land protection for TNC. “You don’t get an easement because of the financial benefits. It’s because you love the property. You love watching the wildlife. You love the land. That is where an easement can be a tool. There will be offset tax benefits that can help your estate and your heirs. But at the end of the day, that property has to be special to you.”
Easements are written specifically for a tract of land and its intended uses. At the discretion of the landowner, some easements may have a “building envelope” written in that allows the holder or one of his heirs to build a modest structure, usually a dwelling. There may be an “impervious surface limit,” which generally restricts how much of the land can be developed and, thus, produce runoff that can release toxins into the environment.
“There can be financial rewards, but it has to come from a love for your property and that you want it to look a certain way after you are gone,” Hartman said. “Landowners have a lot of flexibility. Everything is customized to that property. No two easements look alike.”
“The reason they get a tax deduction in the first place is because they give up some of the land’s value in the deal. Obviously they could make more money by developing or subdividing it,” Demosthenes said. “Land protection certainly is not all about tax incentives. It’s really and truly about people who love these landscapes.”
The ACE Basin success story has demonstrated how powerful a marketing tool word-of-mouth can be. Landowners have had the ear of their neighbors and built consensus ─ one neighbor at a time.
“There is a powerful factor in real estate. It’s called the factor of conformity,” Lane explained. “Real estate tends to develop a similar form to what is next door.”
Loring feels fortunate that she has talked about conservation with her son, who stands to inherit Old Combahee Plantation one day. An only child, he already is convinced that the property must be protected. If he had multiple siblings, however, there might not be consensus on stewardship.
Although an easement is permanent and generally irrevocable, the likelihood that its terms will be violated increases when the property changes hands. Violations, such as unauthorized timbering or construction, leave the property vulnerable to decline and habitat destruction. Sometimes heirs do not see eye-to-eye with their family benefactors. That’s why easement monitoring is so important, especially in the cases of second- and third-generation owners.
“Generally what we are seeing are second-generation landowners who are not as invested in the easement as the original donors. However, we do our best to be a resource for the new landowner and to be available and accessible for questions and guidance as it relates to the easement. This is the most effective way of preventing an unintended easement violation.” Demosthenes said.
Remaining threats to the ACE Basin, according to Prevost, are still development and inappropriate infrastructure expansion, such as road and sewer construction.
“That’s why land use planning is a big focus area for us now,” he said. “In my view, that is the real future of what we should be doing.”
Loring, who is from California, understands that imperative. She believes conservation here is critical to economic development, particularly tourism.
“One thing that South Carolina has is these huge, gorgeous tracts of land,” she said. “I’ve seen what’s happened in California with high-density housing. If that happens here, you’ll lose what brings people to the South.”
Private landowners in the ACE have cultivated a culture of conservation that’s still growing, so the community cannot become complacent. Public-private collaboration in the ACE is groundbreaking indeed.
“This project is one of the greatest successes in the state of South Carolina, in the Southeast, and in the country,” Demosthenes said. “It is definitely a model.”
“One of the goals of the ACE project was to protect about 90,000 acres of land. They just went over 200,000 acres. Most people realize that a lot of projects have a hard time reaching their goals. In this case, it’s achieved twice its goal,” said Mark Purcell of ABNWR. “A lot of people may not realize and appreciate, in my opinion, how much protected land is provided by private citizens. Governments can’t buy it all. If they do, they have to take care of it, and that means tax dollars. I think people might be surprised to know how much land in the ACE is protected by private folks. They are the bricks, and we are, in a sense, the mortar, helping hold it all together.”
“It’s just a magical place. It combines unbelievable natural resource values with historic values. That is unlike anywhere in the country. The marsh habitats found in the Lowcountry of South Carolina are not a whole lot different in many places than they were 500 years ago. It’s truly one of the jewels of the country.”
─ the late Sam Hamilton, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
“I enjoy going out on a boat during the spring tides of October and November and poling across the lush broad expanse of the Spartina marshes of St. Helena Sound quietly seeking to flush a marsh hen while trying to also note the subtle push of water made by a spot-tailed bass and trying to entice him into tipping up on my fly. At this time of year, the marsh is alive with mammals, reptiles, and migratory birds. Its timeless beauty makes me always feel like I've entered into an A. B. Frost period painting.”
─ Matthew B. Connelly Jr.
“We were out on this boat excursion to map out a proposal for the national wildlife refuge in the ACE. We had been out on the water pretty much all day and concluded back at Willtown. I left to go back to Bear Island, but about halfway back, I had motor trouble. I was by myself. The only thing the boat would do is go in reverse. The tide was really high. I passed a dock to a private hunt club and knew who owned it, so I backed in and parked the boat. After that, I had to start walking. There was an extensive system of rice dikes. I was hoping to run into someone who could give me a ride out. I kept walking five or six miles through a maze of dikes. I was still about two miles from the headquarters when I spotted a dump truck. There was a DNR radio in it, and I called someone, and they came and picked me up. The whole ordeal lasted about two hours. Charles Lane laughed about it.”
─ Michael Prevost
“I had been working very diligently to acquire these properties in the ACE national estuarine research preserve. We started acquiring quite a bit of land, but there was no headquarters or office to work out of. We didn’t even have cell phones then. There was a small law enforcement office on Bear Island, and we could go to this little store on U.S. 17 and use the phone there. Other than that, we worked out of the trunk of a car.
“There was a public boat landing with a mobile home on it, and we determined it would be a great site for an office. It’s funny because we spent so much time and money to acquire large tracts of land, and here we were buying two acres with a mobile home on it. Of course, we had to write all these projects up. Each project needs to be assigned a biological significance code. There was a question of how to code these two acres with weeds and a mobile home on it. It was determined that, because it was in the ACE Basin, we could use the same code as that for Otter Island, B1, which is the highest category of biological significance!”
─ Michael Prevost
February 23, 2011
Hartvigsen is Marketing and Communications Manager at South Carolina Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.