Behind the scenes of one of the Carolina’s best kept secrets, conservationist groups are working tirelessly to protect its borders and beyond.
Less than a 30-minute drive from most parts of Summerville is an ancient land, filled with giants over a thousand years old. The waters beckon to be explored, and a boardwalk rises above the ground, inviting visitors to immerse themselves in the experience of being in such a sacred space. This is Francis Beidler Forest, an Audubon wildlife sanctuary in Four Holes Swamp consisting of around 18,000 acres of cypress, hardwoods, and swampland, and home to 142 species of birds. Originally purchased with the help of the Nature Conservancy in 1969, the land includes 1,800 acres of virgin cypress tupelo trees aged between 1,000 and 1,500 years old, one of two remaining old growth forests in the state, and the largest virgin stand of these trees in the world. The sanctuary welcomes over 11,000 visitors annually, including countless international tourists, and serves as an unmatched educational and scenic resource for photographers, birders, and area schools.
As development in the Charleston area has become more prevalent, so have the people who recognize the intrinsic value of Beidler Forest and work together to protect this treasure of the Lowcountry for current and future generations.
One such champion is Sharon Richardson, the executive director of the Audubon South Carolina Society. Formerly a contract grant writer and independent consultant, Richardson has been working in South Carolina on conservation for around twenty years, and though Audubon manages over 20,000 acres of habitat in South Carolina, Beidler Forest is a place close to her heart.
“When you’re out there, especially if you’re in a canoe, it feels like you’re in Jurassic Park,” she smiles. “You can easily imagine dinosaurs just flying by you as you sit in this incredibly spiritual and inspiring space; it’s like a step back in time, but you’re only 20 minutes from the busy highway.”
Richardson and her team are working tirelessly to protect not only Beidler Forest, but the areas all around it, particularly upstream and upland. In doing so, they aim to create a strong buffer between the unspoiled wildlife sanctuary and new development, which even in moderation can wreak havoc on nearby delicate ecosystems and the critters within. The Audubon Society considers two major options when building this buffer: purchasing land outright and working with conservation groups to help private landowners establish conservation easements. Purchasing the land is a costly endeavor, and the group is not always able to meet landowners at a price that is affordable.
But, when they are able to acquire new land, the knowledge that Beidler is even more protected is invaluable. For conservation easements, they turn to preservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, Lowcountry Land Trust, and Natural Resources Conservation Service, enlisting the help of their fellow champions of the land.
One such local group that has proven to be invaluable to Beidler Forest and the Audubon Society is the Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust, headed by executive director, Raleigh West. West is intensely passionate about preserving what he calls “special places,” defining them as “beautiful intersections of historically and naturally significant property.” His mission can be traced back to his elementary school years, when a dove club that was a regular after-school stop with his father was suddenly demolished.
“I drove by, and it was just gone,” West remembers. “It’s a warehouse now. It hit me that, without some level of protection, things can easily be here one day and gone the next. Later, as I matured, I realized that the location was probably an appropriate place for a warehouse. But there are still places around that are special enough to warrant protection.”
West’s dedication to preserving important land became his career, and he accepted the position of executive director at the Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust in 2013. Since then, he has shifted the focus of the trust’s efforts, which were previously directed at mostly Cooper River properties, to include Santee River, Cooper River, Four Holes Swamp, and the Ashley River Headwaters, which they collectively call “Santee Cooper Country.” This broadening of focus put Beidler Forest right in their line of attention, and West quickly became intent on using the resources of the trust to help protect the sanctuary.
“Beidler Forest is such an amazing place,” West says. “It’s incredibly awe-inspiring, especially with the age of the trees in the old-growth forest. You think, ‘What? This is still here?’ It’s like a time warp.”
Working in tandem with the efforts of the Audubon Society to establish a strong buffer for Beidler Forest, Raleigh and his team at Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust assist private landowners in establishing permanent conservation easements. The trust works only with willing landowners, guiding them through the process of donating the development rights of the land to conservation in perpetuity while educating them on the benefits, which include modest payments from various trusts and conservation groups, tax write-offs, and the guarantee that the land will not be split up into countless pieces in the future, while also ensuring that future inheritors will not have to pay exorbitant estate taxes.
Upon agreeing to a conservation easement, the landowner still owns the land, and retains all of the rights they decide they want to retain such as fishing, farming, hunting, timber management or building a house or two. Essentially, the conservation easement restricts extensive development while allowing properties to be used for traditional purposes, strengthensing the environmental value of the land while lowering the taxable value.
With a collaborative approach between the Audubon Society, Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust and other non-profit conservation groups, Beidler Forest is now surrounded by 25,000 acres protected by conservation easements, including the 13,000- acre Brosnan Forest.
“We have a lot of people in our corner when it comes to establishing this corridor of pristine land,” Sharon Richardson says. “And all of us are just trying to get the message across that private landowners have options: if they want to permanently protect their property and keep this area free from overdevelopment, they can sit back and get paid.”
As far as development goes, Raleigh West is quick to point out that he and Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust are not against new construction as a whole.
“Development on its face is not bad or counter to what we are doing,” he explains. “Concentrated development where it should go—which is where the infrastructure is—is appropriate. We are trying to keep that sort of development from leapfrogging over to Beidler Forest. As far as quality of life, we are so fortunate to have this in our backyard; it is this gorgeous, unpolluted, original landscape. I think it’s our job to make sure it stays that way.”
In the coming years, the Audubon Society hopes to acquire at least another few thousand acres around Beidler Forest with no gaps in between, a goal which Richardson says will ensure a safety net for the wildlife that calls the land home. For West, his hope is to establish a green belt around the Charleston area; to have a vibrant urban core with unspoiled landscapes just a short drive in any direction.
Both Richardson and West believe that, with the right mindset, their dreams for the future, for the residents of the Lowcountry, and for the irreplaceable wildlife, are quite achievable.
“We are blessed in South Carolina,” Sharon Richardson remarks, “Because there is a deep stewardship ethic here. People appreciate and care deeply about the land and want it to stay the same way. There is strength in numbers, and if we can all come together collectively, we can protect this crown jewel for generations to come.”
By Jana Riley