The Story of Sandy Island
About the people who saved The Nature Conservancy’s largest preserve in South Carolina
Once the roar of the boat engine cuts out, it could be 2016 or 1916. Not much has changed on Sandy Island Preserve, the largest protected freshwater island on the east coast and, at 9,165 acres, The Nature Conservancy’s largest preserve in South Carolina. This is the story of the people who saved it.
The Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers’ freshwater tides make Sandy Island ideal for growing rice in the South’s plantation culture. Following the Civil War, freed slave Phillip Washington purchases several hundred acres of land on the southern tip of the island and founds Sandy Island Village. Today, the village still is populated by descendants of those enslaved Africans and remains accessible only by boat.
Nature Conservancy Land Steward Furman Long grows up hiking and fishing on Sandy Island. From the photo: “I saw a swirl and threw the jigger up there and caught him. He broke my cane pole, too. That is a rod I picked up just to enhance the picture.”
Businessmen Roger Milliken and E. Craig Wall, Jr. file for a permit to build a bridge from the north end of Sandy Island, where they own more than 9,000 acres, to the mainland. Their stated goal is to harvest timber, but the proposal quickly raises concerns about future development.
Objections from residents and conservation groups lead the state to issue a conditional permit, contingent on a study of the bridge’s environmental impact on the island’s endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. The delay opens a short window for advocates to find a way to protect the island.
Public opinion turns against the bridge, thanks in part to coverage from The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and local news outlets.
An updated application still fails to address the bridge’s full impact on the woodpeckers. The permit is denied by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.
After nearly three years of meetings between Milliken, Webel, Beach and then-Conservancy State Director Pat Morgan, Sandy Island Preserve is officially protected for $11 million.
- The South Carolina Department of Transportation (SC-DOT) contributes $10 million, creating a mitigation “bank” to offset the environmental impact of future road construction.
- The Conservancy contributes $1 million, agreeing to steward the land and take full ownership once SC-DOT uses up its bank credits.
- Milliken and Wall agree to forego $1 million of the $12 million appraised value.
The $3-million Winyah Bay Bioreserve Endowment is created with a spectacular $1.2-million closing gift from Diane Terni and The Diebold Foundation, in honor of Dorothy R. Diebold. The endowment funds a full-time land steward for Sandy Island and a project director for Winyah Bay.
The South Carolina Department of Transportation officially transfers Sandy Island Preserve to The Nature Conservancy.
On a sunny day in September, the Conservancy opens the Larry Paul Trail, a new, two-mile hiking trail funded by the Frances P. Bunnelle Foundation and named in honor of longtime Sandy Island supporter Larry Paul. Paul cuts the ribbon to welcome the trail’s first 40 hikers.
The Conservancy’s most recent red-cockaded woodpecker survey finds 45 active family groups on the island, a 20 percent increase over a baseline survey conducted in 1997. The birds nest in the island’s native longleaf pines. The pine forests are kept healthy through frequent controlled burns that eliminate competitive trees and encourage new longleaf seedlings to germinate.
Thanks to the generous support of our members and volunteers, Sandy Island Preserve reaches a landmark 20th anniversary!
The freshwater tides that made Sandy Island ideal for growing rice are becoming brackish as rising sea levels push saltwater upstream. While the island’s plants and wildlife will eventually change, its place in history—and the legacy of those who saved it—is here to stay.