The South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) on January 28, 2011, officially transferred ownership of Sandy Island Preserve to The Nature Conservancy at a ceremony at the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center.
Located in Georgetown County where the Pee Dee River meets the Waccamaw River, Sandy Island is completely surrounded by water with no bridges connecting it to the mainland. Measuring 4 miles wide and 6 miles long, the 12,000-acre island is the largest freshwater island in the eastern United States. About 9,000 of the island is natural area; a small private village occupies the southern tip.
SCDOT purchased the natural areas of the island in December of 1996 as part of a special deal to expedite highway projects in other coastal areas of the state. When road projects disturb wetlands, anywhere from 2-5 acres of wetlands must be preserved elsewhere for each wetlands acre that is impacted. The Sandy Island deal permitted SCDOT to create a “mitigation bank” of more than 9,000 acres, allowing projects to move forward at an accelerated rate and saving taxpayers more than $53 million.
“There was no question that Sandy Island needed to be saved, so the first task was to convince the developers who owned the property to sell it to the state,” then-Transportation Secretary H.B. “Buck” Limehouse said. “Once they were convinced to do the right thing, we needed to forge a private-public partnership that was cutting-edge for that time.”
SCDOT purchased the natural areas of the island for $10 million, and the deal included legally binding protective covenants to conserve the land forever. At the time, The Nature Conservancy contributed $1 million towards the purchase and negotiated to manage the land at no cost to the state. SCDOT also agreed to transfer ownership of the property to The Nature Conservancy when the mitigation credits had been exhausted. The Nature Conservancy has been managing the island’s natural areas and wildlife for the past 14 years. During that time, the Conservancy has made the island accessible to the public and organizations and has supported research and education on the island.
“We are excited and honored to receive title to this magnificent preserve – the largest undeveloped freshwater island on the East Coast,” said Mark Robertson, Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy of South Carolina. “The tremendous environmental, historical and cultural significance of the island make it a valuable asset for the people of South Carolina, and we look forward to developing partnerships with citizens and community organizations."
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.