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In a League of its own

Conservation of land and the environment has been at the heart of the fight against the development of historically significant areas in the Lowcountry. For 30 years, the Coastal Conservation League (CCL) has made it their mission to do just that. As their mission well sums it up, they “… protect the threatened resources of the South Carolina coastal plain — its natural landscapes, abundant wildlife, clean water and quality of life — by working with citizens and government on proactive, comprehensive solutions to environmental challenges.” Since founding the organization in 1989, Dana Beach and the CCL have fought against a multitude of development projects. Now, Beach and his wife, Virginia, have released a new book, A Wholly Admirable Thing, which details and highlights some of the most significant obstacles the CCL has faced and overcome.

Throughout this book, Beach discusses the work performed by the CCL and other organizations, such as the Lowcountry Land Trust, Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy and many other similar groups, working together to achieve so many positive results for the environment. This book covers a wide range of issues in many areas, including, to name a few, the Francis Marion National Forest, Sandy Island, the Ashley and Edisto rivers and the Santee Cooper plan to build a billion dollar coal-burning plant on the banks of the Pee Dee River.

When Hurricane Hugo blew through the Lowcountry, it left Charleston devastated and wiped out a large percentage of mature trees in the Francis Marion National Forest. As a result, species such as the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker suffered a population decrease. After years of work, the CCL and alongside notable individuals such as the late Jane Lareau, were ultimately successful in adding thousands of acres to the Francis Marion and in the restoration of its longleaf pine habitat. In addition, these efforts led to the passing of the S.C. Conservation Bank Act in 2002, establishing a dedicated source of state funds for land protection for the first time in our state’s history.

When Sandy Island, one of the last intact Gullah communities on the East Coast, faced a development project that threatened its unique way of life, the CCL was able to work alongside other organizations, such as the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Sandy Island Action Club, the Sierra Club and Georgetown League of Women Voters, to help stop this development project from happening. The project was initially opposed by Sandy Island Associates, who represented majority owners of the island-Spartanburg textile magnate Roger Milliken and Conway Wood Products heir Craig Wall, Jr. — but an agreement was ultimately worked out where Sandy Island Associates agreed to sell their portion of the land to DOT for $11 million.

In a separate agreement, DOT also purchased 7,700 acres of a cypress-tupelo swamp upriver of Sandy Island for $1.9 million. The combined 16,800 acres served as the corpus for a mitigation bank to offset future road construction and wetland alteration by DOT, namely the Conway Bypass project. Then in 1997, the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge was established, including a portion of Sandy Island as well as the additional cypress-tupelo swamp acreage-comprising a total of about 23,000 acres. Later that same year, the remaining Sandy Island lands acquired by the state and later transferred to the Nature Conservancy were formally dedicated as the Sandy Island Preserve.

The CCL also played a key role in fighting for nearly a decade-and-a-half to protect permanently approximately 70,000 acres of critical lands, namely the areas known as Poplar Grove, Watson Hill and the East Edisto tract, that connect the Ashley River Historic District to the ACE Basin and extending from Highway 17 near Edisto Island all the way up to Highway 17-A outside of Summerville. As Beach states, “The initiative helped rewrite the manual for how to do conservation.” Although the fight in some respect has not ended, the land acquired throughout the years stands as the largest private land conservation transaction in the history of South Carolina.

One of the more recent incidents in the book was the proposed Santee Cooper power plant. When Santee Cooper announced plans to build a $1 billion, 600-megawatt, coal burning power plant on the banks of the Pee Dee River, the CCL teamed up with other organizations to stand their ground against the third largest publicly owned utility in the nation. Not only was the opposition successful in their fight against Santee Cooper, but it paved the way for more progress to be made in energy and alternative forms of energy.

In 2014, Act 236 — the Distributed Energy Resource Program Act — was signed into law. Act 236 was the first ever solar bill in South Carolina and it gave customers the freedom to lease solar systems from independent solar companies, permitted utilities to distribute power from private residential and commercial renewable installations and ensured equitable net metering rules. Two years later, the South Carolina Energy Office initiated the creation of a comprehensive state energy plan with the overall goal to ensure that South Carolina’s energy system is affordable and reliable and maximizes environmental quality, consumer choice and market competitiveness.

These four examples are only snapshots of what Beach covers in his book. Our peerless natural surroundings are what helps make the Lowcountry so unique; truly, they are its most valuable asset. Fighting to preserve this habitat and keeping it vibrant and healthy is due in no small part to the CCL. Reading about these stories in his new book A Wholly Admirable Thing allows one to learn more about the issues the Lowcountry and coastal regions of South Carolina have faced and, as the Beach states, “The beauty of it is, you get to go back and pick the lessons out and make sure people learn from history and don’t repeat it.” It does not have to be an issue of choosing between being pro-business or pro-environment. You can fight for one to support both. I suggest you pick up a copy of A Wholly Admirable Thing today to understand in more detail how Beach and the CCL have worked to make it their mission to preserve the Lowcountry and leave a positive legacy.

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