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Modern Living in the Old South

Modern Living in the Old South

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In bequeathing his beloved South Carolina land to Nemours Wildlife Foundation, Eugene duPont III created a permanent home for wildlife management, research and education.

Imagine that you are born in 1914 to a prominent family. You become a Dartmouth College graduate, and one of the nation’s largest companies bears your last name. You make your own name and become a captain of industry, with homes in Florida, Delaware, Wyoming, and an apartment in New York City. You’ve seen all that the country has to offer and much of the world. But it is to the South Carolina Lowcountry that you are drawn by something magical. Along the Combahee River, sunrise over the marsh illuminates vast numbers of waterfowl dropping in to browse tidal rice fields. Alongside wading birds, ancient alligators shimmer like jewels. Beneath massive oaks draped with moss, white-tailed deer forage the shoots of new grass, and in stands of tall pines, quail coveys rise in a flurry of feathers. It is a slice of paradise unlike any other.

What could only be described as a daydream to most is the actual story of Eugene duPont III’s life, though it scarcely touches the enterprises and accomplishments of the handsome, paradoxical businessman, hunter, conservationist, and outdoorsman. He named the untamed South Carolina property Nemours in tribute to his family’s French origins, and from among his many holdings, he chose the pristine landscape for his family’s primary residence. Between the sprawling oaks overlooking the Combahee River, duPont built the place he would call home for the next thirty years.

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” The words by poet Gary Snyder aptly describe duPont’s emotional connection to his southern sanctuary. So, what would compel him to give away this home and land that meant so much? Even though he was not comfortable sharing access to Nemours with those he did not know, his 1995 will bequeathed the beloved property to Nemours Wildlife Foundation. Loosely defined by his will, the foundation would honor duPont’s legacy through excellence in land stewardship, education and discovery. Established to preserve our hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreational heritage, the foundation promotes conservation ethics and education. Outreach programs designed to foster curiosity and opportunity in these fields of study opened the door to the future.

The natural resources of Nemours’ 10,000 acres are second to none, but of equal importance are the people who hold the future of the environment in their hands. The foundation recognized a critical need for creating field training opportunities for wildlife management program students. With that priority in mind, the foundation conducted a nationwide search for a candidate to organize and implement this initiative. The perfect candidate would possess the knowledge base to identify the foundation’s core missions and the leadership skills to design and carry out programs to meet those goals.

On January 1, 1999, Dr. Ernie Wiggers stepped in to take the reins as Executive Director. His impressive resume included a master’s in wildlife biology, a doctorate in wildlife science, and an associate professorship at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s fisheries and wildlife program. It was a match made in heaven for Wiggers, a South Carolina native, and Clemson graduate. It also marked the dawning of a new day for Nemours Wildlife Foundation.

Over his 25 years at Nemours, Wiggers has come to know the vast acreage like the back of his hand. Spending a day exploring Nemours with the director is an experience worthy of a college credit all by itself. Wiggers’ encyclopedic knowledge of flora and fauna goes down as easy as sweet tea and leaves one thirsty for more. It is no wonder that he is revered by the interns and graduate students who have passed through the gates. Nor is it a surprise that many go on to set national standards, work with public and private land and wildlife management organizations, or become educators themselves.

Gillie Croft, a consulting biologist and forester for Folk Land Management Company in Green Pond, SC, credits his time at Nemours with changing the course of his life. He looks back to his 2010 summer working at Nemours as an intern from Horry- Georgetown’s wildlife management program. “It was the hardest work I’d ever done in my life.” Fascinated by the biology component of wildlife management, Croft returned to Nemours after receiving his associate’s degree. Dr. Wiggers encouraged and inspired him to pursue and earn his undergraduate degree from Clemson. Later, when Croft expressed his interest in graduate school, the foundation provided graduate program funding at Clemson. Croft received his master’s degree in 2018.

For the past two months, one of wildlife biology student Stephanie Braswell’s duties has been checking the contents of artificial nesting boxes placed high in pine trees to mimic the natural holes favored by endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. The data she records tracks the success of efforts to encourage new colonies of the species. When her inspection reveals a flying squirrel that seems quite at home in one box, it is not a result the program hopes for, but the information ultimately furthers the research. At the end of the week, she will graduate from Clemson, then begin graduate work at Auburn. In this, her first job in the wildlife field, Stephanie has had the opportunity to explore many different aspects of the field. She says she has loved every minute of the job that will add significant value to her resume.

The woodpecker research is but one of many projects currently underway. Staff biologist Beau Bowers came to Nemours as an intern in 2013. Following a stint in the Marine Corps, he completed his wildlife management program degree from Clemson in less than two and a half years. Bowers leads one of the foundation’s most far-reaching projects. The multi-state wood duck nesting project measures the efficiency of an earlier program to restore a population almost wiped out in the early 19th century due to deforestation. The Nemours biologist coordinates fieldwork in South Carolina’s Lake Moultrie, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Delaware, Maryland, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The job of assembling data from web- tagged ducklings in over 1,200 nesting boxes across eight states is a daunting task, giving new meaning to keeping one’s ducks in a row. So far, the program has tracked over 1,000 female hens and tagged over 4,000 ducklings. Eventually, all the data will be combined, analyzed, and published for the scientific community.

As a leader in the scientific study and stewardship of natural resources, each activity at Nemours Wildlife Foundation is carefully considered for its impact on natural and cultural resources. Each contributes to understanding and improvement in wildlife management practices and is a valuable tool of use to all landowners. The ongoing construction, installation, and maintenance of massive rice trunks controlling water flow between the Combahee River and waterfowl impoundments constantly enhance habitat knowledge. Research examining the amount of energy produced by wigeon grass will help estimate the number of waterfowl that a habitat can reasonably sustain. A study of woodland forage growth after prescribed seasonal burns will influence future land management.

Though the property is not open to the public, Nemours welcomes organized groups by appointment when research schedules permit. In addition, through the years, Nemours Wildlife Foundation has sponsored outreach programs for many who would not otherwise have access or opportunities to experience the beautiful and diverse habitat. In 2004, they began working with the national Outdoor Dream Foundation to provide outdoor adventures for terminally ill youngsters. Both are tremendously rewarding sources of pride for staff members.

Without the foresight and generosity of Eugene duPont III, the land he once called home along the Combahee River could never have remained the sanctuary it is today. The significance of the priceless gift grows with each new generation. It is doubtful that he ever imagined the role it would play in the future of conservation research and education. However, there is no doubt that he would be as proud as we are grateful. AM

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