SC Chapter Executive Director Mark Robertson, front, hikes up trail with group at Jones Gap.
“Two years ago, in the middle of the recession, I had a really bad day at work. I considered retirement. But I came home to Caesars Head and Jones Gap state parks and got my batteries recharged,” Phil Gaines told a gathering of nearly 100 conservation supporters March 31 in Greenville. “They are special places. They are tonic for the soul.”
The director of S.C. State Parks spoke on behalf of a Nature Conservancy (TNC) fund-raising campaign to complete the purchase of 300 acres, matched by another 305 adjoining acres donated by Naturaland Trust, to increase the total acreage of Jones Gap State Park to about 4,000.
“I hiked the trails and went in the streams and did ‘creek walking’ from rock to rock, and I reconnected with who I was,” Gaines continued. “I need this place just like you need this place, just like South Carolinians need this place. It defines who we are as a state.”
For the past three years, TNC has been working with partners, including SC State Parks, Naturaland Trust, and the Cedar Rock Community, on a phased land deal. To date, fund-raising is nearly 80 percent complete. A remaining $250,000 is needed to complete the last leg of the deal, slated to close at the end of June.
“We are so lucky to be living in Greenville, not only because it is a great city but we also have this rare jewel of the South Carolina mountains in our back yard,” said TNC Southern Blue Ridge Project Director Kristen Austin. “We are announcing from the mountaintop – we need help! We need a miracle. …
“When we started this project, we had a lot of great miracles happen. There were people who said we wouldn’t be able to raise a dime. We are where we are because of those miracles.”
As part of the event, Upstate nature photographer Clay Bolt unveiled the first Southern Blue Ridge images from the worldwide “Meet Your Neighbours (MYN)” project designed to connect people with often-overlooked wildlife in their very own backyards through stunningly detailed photography of species in a backlit white field studio. The Conservancy is sponsoring Bolt’s MYN photos of South Carolina species.
“When we protect land, we are doing so much more than just purchasing property; we are protecting relationships,” Bolt told the audience. “Each one of these amazing creatures lives right here in our mountains. They are our wild neighbors. And we are blessed to live in one of the most biologically rich areas in North America.”
Marshall Winn, an attorney and president of the Cedar Rock Community, which raised approximately $100,000 for the effort last year, called the park “the emerald crown of Greenville.”
“When people come here, they are amazed by what we have in the way of natural beauty, and it’s accessible to everybody,” Winn said. “This is a real smart investment for Greenville.”
Winn asked the audience to think about familiar places like Falls Park along the Reedy River, the Governor’s School for the Arts, the Peace Center, Main Street, and the Greenville County Museum of Art.
“What do these special places have in common with Jones Gap? They were established by local initiative, by people in Greenville who said our community needs these things. They worked their tails off and made it happen,” Winn said with the fervor of a presidential candidate giving a stump speech. “I am proud to be a Greenvillian!”
The event was followed by an April 20 group hike to provide a sneak peek at some of the land that may become the newest section of Jones Gap. It didn’t disappoint. Morning rain and clouds opened to sunshine, birdsong, and falling water from a 225-foot waterfall on the tract bursting with spring flowers and known locally as the “White Property.”
Timely articles and editorials in the local media also boosted interest in the project.
“This project is worthwhile, and it would be encouraging to see those with the means step up to ensure that Jones Gap State Park grows,” stated an April 28 editorial in The Greenville News. “Not only would the expansion make the Upstate destination bigger for all to enjoy, it would preserve important natural lands in the most beautiful part of South Carolina and one of the nation’s most picturesque regions.”
Keeping its focus on the greater goal of creating a bridge of public land across the mountains from Table Rock to North Saluda, the Greenville Journal in a May 6 editorial noted: “This is a mountain heritage South Carolina cannot take for granted. … These 301 acres are a crucial piece if the dream of a 40,000-acre bridge of unbroken wilderness across the mountain edge is ever to be achieved.”
In response to media and TNC outreach, moderate incremental individual donations have poured in. But time is running low, and TNC Executive Director Mark Robertson said, “It’s going to take everyone’s help. It’s all hands on deck.” Austin described what’s needed as a large “Hail Mary” donor to complete the deal.
“We have an opportunity to impact people who aren’t even born yet!” Gaines told Jones Gap supporters on March 31. “I plan on taking my grandchildren to these special places, and I don’t even have grandchildren yet!”
Donations to the Jones Gap Expansion Project can be sent to The Nature Conservancy’s Columbia Office at 2231 Devine Street, Suite 100, Columbia, SC 29205. Please direct questions to Kristen Austin at 864-233-4988.