South Carolina

The Story of Sandy Island



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.”


Sandy Island Slideshow 1

Furman Long with a mudfish he caught on Sandy Island in 1950 © TNC (Furman Long)


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.

“A person would come next to me and build a $400,000 home, and automatically it was gonna shoot my tax up. And all that was going through our mind in reference to being developed, this place being developed. It would not be the same Sandy Island like it is now.” – Reverend George Weathers, Sandy Island community leader*

“A $2 million, two-lane bridge was only cost effective if they planned to develop the island. Proposals for I-73 and the Carolina Bays Parkway at the time were setting the stage for Myrtle Beach-style development all the way downriver to Georgetown. Sandy Island was ground zero.” – David Farren, Executive Director, The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation (then Senior Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center)

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.

“The South Carolina Chapter of The Nature Conservancy put us in touch with Richard Webel, a board member from their Long Island program who also was Mr. Milliken’s landscape architect. Conservancy State Director Pat Morgan and I explained our goal of protecting the island, and Rick agreed to talk to Mr. Milliken about it.” – Dana Beach, Executive Director

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Red-cockaded woodpecker at Sandy Island © John Moore


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.

“I think the argument that really resonated with the owners was the idea of legacy. What did they want this island to look like in 50 years? They knew Sandy Island was special. It’s still special today, and it’s there for all South Carolinians to enjoy.” — Mark Sanford,United States Representative for South Carolina’s First Congressional District 1995—2001, 2013—present

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Carnivorous pitcher plants on Sandy Island © John Moore


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.

“Creating this endowment allowed us to ensure that this special place will always be there, pristine and healthy, and allowed The Nature Conservancy to care for it and protect it for the past 20 years... and many more to come.” — Joe Williams, Trustee Emeritus, The Nature Conservancy in South Carolina 


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Map of Sandy Island and Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge © TNC


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.

“There’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be than Sandy Island. I was so honored when The Nature Conservancy created a hiking trail on Sandy Island in 2014 and named it for me. This trail will allow people to explore and enjoy Sandy Island for many years to come.” — Larry Paul, Conservancy supporter

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Larry Paul and daughter Tiffany at the Larry Paul Trail opening © TNC (Emily Kaufman)


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.

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Controlled burn © Rich Reid



Thanks to the generous support of our members and volunteers, Sandy Island Preserve reaches a landmark 20th anniversary!

“The natural history and beauty of the Winyah area has been such an important part of our lives here in South Carolina. It is a quiet, peaceful place where we find solitude. We love Sandy Island and are so appreciative that those same aspects will be forever preserved and protected there.” — Marcia and Jamie Constance, Conservancy supporters

Sandy Island Slideshow 2

Sandy Island Land Steward Furman Long © TNC (Tom Dooley)


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.

“A wise old river man once told me, ‘Ain’t nobody but the wind and sea that’s gonna hold back that tide.’ But the salt wedge that makes the tide is coming upstream. Folks that grew up fishing on the Waccamaw and Pee Dee rivers will tell you they’d never seen shrimp jumping off Sandy Island or dolphin on patrol at Yauhannah Lake until 10 years ago. The same forces of nature that created Sandy Island now are redefining her. Studying those changes will teach us how to plan for the many habitat changes as the estuary moves upstream.” — Craig Sasser, Refuge Manager, Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


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