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Forever Wild More ducks, fewer people in the ACE Basin

On December 8, the ACE Basin Project celebrated its 30th anniversary at Willtown Bluff Plantation, on a breathtaking bluff overlooking ancient rice fields along the South Edisto River. Much has changed since the endeavor began, but the spirit of the project has ensured that a great deal of the natural landscape remains and will forever remain unaltered.

Charles Lane, whose family owns Willtown Bluff Plantation, recalls development threats and a subsequent desire to prevent the ACE Basin from becoming “another Hilton Head.” At Willtown, concerned landowners and representatives from conservation organizations put their heads together to protect a special landscape worthy of defending, and the ACE Basin Project was born. Since the property is the site of an erstwhile colonial-era settlement, long-since reclaimed by nature, the setting of the early conservation meeting seems particularly appropriate.

The Lanes and other influential landowners, such as the Donnelley and Maybank families, collaborated with representatives of The Nature Conservancy and U.S. Fish & Wildlife. Additional insight was provided by John Frampton, a biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Coy Johnston, a trained forester who had served as the Customer Relations Manager for Westvaco and later Lowcountry Initiative Manager for Wetlands America Trust.

In the late 1980s, “you had incremental conservation, but there was no organized effort; nobody was thinking big,” Lane explains. Back then, neither the Lowcountry Land Trust nor the Coastal Conservation League even existed.

Conservation easements were once an unfamiliar concept in the Lowcountry, but Lane’s father Hugh was aware that good leaders must be people of action. Thus on Earth Day of 1991, the Lane family placed a conservation easement on Willtown Plantation.

“In 1995, there were four conservation easements in the ACE; now, there are 270. That’s a lot of families who sat down and thought long and hard and decided to give away in perpetuity their rights to develop their land. That’s the story of the ACE Basin!”

“The other story” of this effort, Lane reminds us, involves all of the various groups that worked together to make possible the protection of so many precious acres. Partnerships developed among diverse organizations that selflessly realized a shared vision of conservation. Among the ACE Basin Project partners are Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, The Audubon Society, Lowcountry Land Trust and Nemours Wildlife Foundation. At the anniversary, efforts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the S.C. Conservation Bank and Dominion Energy were also recognized.

ACE is an acronym for the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto Rivers. This region, which spans Charleston, Colleton, and Beaufort Counties is hailed as “one of the largest undeveloped estuaries along the Atlantic Coast.” Before the inception of the initiative, no one referred to the area by its now famous moniker. John Frampton discovered that “ACE Basin” was coined by the author of a 1963 U.S. Department of the Interior report identifying this place as a significant ecosystem.

Coy Johnston delivered the invocation at the anniversary celebration. He “plagiarized a bit” “The Hunter’s Prayer” he once found in Double Gun Journal, adapting the message to better suit the flora and fauna of our South Carolina Lowcountry. “Coy made significant contributions philosophically,” Lane says of the ACE Basin Project. “All the rest of us had was passion; we just knew we wanted to save this place.” But Coy said: ‘Our philosophy is no condemnation. We want to preserve all traditional land uses, such as hunting, fishing and forestry.’ Coy believed that you cut people in; you don’t cut them out, and I think we have maintained that balance pretty well.” As a Lowcountry native, Johnston understood the psyche of Lowcountry landowners. He knew and had worked with many of them.

“We weren’t looking to create a bunch of national parks,” Johnston tells us. “It wasn’t going to be a government program; we were going to set up a landowner program. We wanted to protect ambience and nature. Easements have two purposes — to prevent subdivision and to eliminate development.

“When I help landowners write easements, I try to paint with a broad brush, using common sense, and making sure it’s biologically sound. Write it so that people can still generate some income while protecting their property,” says Johnston.

“John Frampton, Charles, and I went to Washington and talked to Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings to tailor a bill to get funds for the ACE Basin,” Johnston recalls, noting that today’s politicians might learn a thing or two from their predecessors, whose love of our state and its natural resources transcended party lines. “When you get an elephant and a donkey together, you can pull a lot of weight!” He laughs.

Coy’s efforts have hardly gone unnoticed. According to the S.C. Statehouse, “Coy is directly responsible for permanently protecting nearly 50,000 acres of wildlife habitat and has helped put almost one million acres of marshland, old rice fields and other lands under conservation easement.”

State Senator Chip Campsen also spoke at the 30th anniversary. A sportsman and friend of conservation, Campsen was instrumental in the creation of the S.C. Conservation Bank, which provides funds to purchase development rights from property owners. He described the unique ACE Basin Project as a bottom-up, grass roots effort, rather than a top-down, government approach. For his efforts, the senator was presented with a rice trunk model by Mike McShane, chair of the S.C. Conservation Bank and member of the Ducks Unlimited National Board of Directors.

Lane, who also serves on the board of the S.C. Conservation Bank, discusses the bank, which has been funded since 2004. “When the conservation bank buys an easement, it does so for pennies on the dollar. When someone puts an easement on a property, the conservation bank only funds one-third of the value — at most. We require the landowner to donate two-thirds of the value. The donated portion allows the state or a nonprofit agency to apply for federal grant money which comes back to our state. South Carolina has been a leader” whereas other states purchase easements at fair market value.

Emphasizing the importance of private easements, Lane says: “If the privately owned high land was developed, there would be no habitat for wildlife.” Furthermore, in the ACE Basin, 75,000 acres have been added for public use where only 8000 acres existed initially. State and federally managed properties with recreational opportunities include the ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve, The Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge, The Bear Island Wildlife Management Area and The Donnelley Wildlife Management Area.

“What makes the ACE Basin so special is the breadth. It only happens because of private easements. They aren’t printing enough money to buy an entire landscape like this!” Lane points out. “We wanted to try to protect 90,000 acres. Now, 301,000 acres are protected in the ACE Basin!”

The success story of the ACE Basin Project is a tale of passionate visionaries who identified as special the rich history and natural resources of the Lowcountry and believed this place — steeped in history and abundant wildlife — was worth fighting to preserve. In developing partnerships with a disregard of individual recognition, they realized the magic of symbiotic relationships so well modeled in our natural world.

“The beauty of the ACE Basin Task Force is that it is not a big machine, but a lot of bodies in the same boat paddling in sync with one another,” Lane says. Conservation efforts inspired by the ACE have come to fruition on the Cooper, Savannah and Santee Rivers, Winyah Bay and the Rappahannock River in Virginia.

The commemorative 30th Anniversary wineglass depicts an illustration of a rice trunk and a Latin inscription “plures anates, pauciores homines,” Latin for “more ducks, fewer people” — a motto that nails the spirit of the ACE Basin Project.

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