A heart-shaped area in central South Carolina, known as the COWASEE Basin, features one of the most luscious and diverse ecosystems in our state and nation. It is comprised of 315,000 acres of lands connected by the Congaree, Wateree, and Santee rivers. Much of its ancient hardwood trees, dripping with Spanish moss as they reach skyward from the swampy mire, provide food and shelter for a variety of species. This place has become known as the “Green Heart of South Carolina” due to its geographical location and heart-shaped cartographic image.
Fortunately, public funding ensures a great swath of this area remains undisturbed from encroaching development with places such as Congaree National Park and Manchester State Forest. These areas provide outdoor recreational opportunities for the public, while also properly maintaining the habitat for flora and fauna. However, sole reliance upon public funding would ensure certain doom for the COWASEE Basin. Defending this area requires cooperative partnerships with private landowners dedicated to conservation of our natural resources; so enters Congaree Land Trust.
Since 1992, Congaree Land Trust has worked with landowners to protect more than 150 private properties through its conservation easement program. Conservation easements restrict how a landowner uses a certain property, all with the goal of conservation through proper management at the center of any agreement. The conservation easement is legally binding in perpetuity for current and future owners of the property. These agreements are as varied in size and scope as the lands that they are designed to protect. Once an agreement is reached between Congaree Land Trust and the landowner, the organization conducts monitoring visits to ensure landowners adhere to the stipulations of the conservation easement.
Stuart White, executive director of Congaree Land Trust, brings a passion for outdoor sportsmanship and conservation to the organization, along with years of experience in both the private and non-profit sectors. He enthusiastically took the reins in 2012, seeing this position as an opportunity to wed his passions with his career path. Congaree Land Trust, which just celebrated 25 years, looms large among a group of roughly 18 to 20 other land trusts in the state of South Carolina, and the organization recently received renewal of its national accreditation from the Land Trust Accreditation Commission. In addition to Stuart, Congaree Land Trust operates with the help of a small staff of six, an active board of directors, and scores of landowners and volunteers. The organization monitors 159 properties, from places between Newberry and Williamsburg County north to south, and Kershaw and Bamberg counties east to west — all the areas drained by the Congaree, Wateree, and Santee rivers.
Congaree Land Trust either strategically recruits landowners with key properties within their purview of the state map, or the landowners reach out directly to the organization. Often, a landowner will enter into a conservation easement with Congaree Land Trust, and then neighboring properties also join, creating a larger area of well-managed and protected landscape. Since landowners incur some costs upon entering a conservation easement, most areas with conservation easements are at least 100 acres.
Conservation easements entered into with Congaree Land Trust are not intended to cause undue financial burden on landowners. They simply provide a structural framework for landowners to decide how they want their property managed for conservation, tax, and estate planning purposes.
During the negotiation, Congaree Land Trust wants large parcels of land to remain intact and properly managed while simultaneously allowing landowners to capitalize financially from proper management of their property. “By working with landowners, Congaree Land Trust can ensure they receive value from their property while protecting the natural resources. There’s a difference between ‘preservation’ and ‘conservation.’ Some landowners will say they never want to cut any trees, but we often advise against that as a well-managed property may have greater conservation value than a property that is not properly cared for — it’s all about balance,” Stuart says.
Without harvesting trees, planting crop fields, or controlled burning practices, habitat suffers as much as if it were clear cut. Preserving everything often leads to preserving nothing. “Habitat is threatened when the landowner can’t make any money from the resource being managed,” Stuart adds.
Land ownership comes with a great responsibility to the resource. The financial weight of owning land would be too burdensome if conservation easements were too strict, potentially forcing a landowner to forfeit their property through a tax sale. Vast amounts of time and money are required to maximize conservation efforts. “Ideally, easements provide financial relief from the fiscal resources being used to manage the property. You’ve got floods and other natural disasters to deal with, in addition to crop failures. It’s constant work, and you’ve got to love it,” Stuart says. He recalls the time his son once suggested the family buy some land, after which Stuart imparted to him the great responsibility and work accompanying land ownership.
Congaree Land Trust conducts monitoring visits to ensure property management in accordance with the easement restrictions. Most visits occur without incident, and on the occasion an incident is recorded, Congaree Land Trust works with the owners to remedy the situation. “If there’s any kind of violation, it’s usually a neighbor who accidentally cuts in the wrong area. We then work with the owner to make sure everything is put back the way it needs to be in accordance with the easement,” Stuart says. Occasionally, high-resolution satellite imagery may be used to ensure landowners are operating within the bounds of their conservation easements; however, this method is not preferred. “In-person visits are important for maintaining relationships with landowners, and I spend too much time in the office anyway!” says Stuart. “So, every chance I have to get out, I look forward to doing it.”
As is the case with most non-profits, Stuart and his small team rely heavily on dedicated volunteers to conduct monitoring visits on behalf of Congaree Land Trust; this “Stewardship Corps” ensures the vital component of conservation easement enforcement gets done.
One of the properties recently due for an official monitoring visit was High Creek, owned by the Salley family. Located directly across from Congaree National Park, High Creek sits at the heart of the COWASEE Basin. “Being a part of the Congaree Land Trust makes us feel great. We felt like this land was too special to ever be developed, and we wanted future generations in our family to be able to enjoy this farm. We believe in the concept of creating an ACE Basin in the Midlands and preserving green space in the COWASEE Basin. It’s a legacy we’re going to leave Calhoun County and the Midlands of South Carolina,” Mark Salley says.
Standing on a hill above several acres of densely forested canopy, High Creek offers a spectacular view of the area where the Wateree River and Congaree rivers converge to form the Santee River (i.e. COWASEE Basin), in addition to a minuscule silhouette of the Columbia skyline barely discernible on the horizon. “You don’t think some developer wouldn’t want to carve this place into a subdivision? Guess again. It’s right there,” Stuart emphatically asserts as he turns to acknowledge Columbia’s close proximity to this natural paradise.
During a tour of High Creek, Jason Chappell, property manager, navigates a maze of dirt roads winding through the property on a John Deere side-by-side ATV, clipping along at 8 miles per hour, the perfect pace for observing the pristine majesty of High Creek. The elevation and habitat change quickly on the descent toward the Congaree River. Tall stands of longleaf pine with manicured understory for bobwhite quail fade into crop fields and impoundments purposely flooded for waterfowl habitat.
Stuart carries a folder containing documents about High Creek as Jason shows him different parts of the property. Each property under conservation easement with Congaree Land Trust has a profile containing the history, amount of land under easement, property boundaries, satellite map, and a record of each monitoring visit dating back to the first one.
When the tour reaches a swampy bottom near the banks of the Congaree River, Jason cuts the motor of the John Deere ATV. He points out several areas where hardwood trees were uprooted, reminders of recent storms. Since then, tornados have taken a few more hardwoods out of the population, but none has been removed for profit. “Stuart, correct me if I’m wrong, but the swamp on this particular easement is a no-cut zone, right?” Jason asks. Stuart confirms his assumption. As sole property manager, Jason knows the stipulations of the easement. “The only trees harvested on High Creek were harvested due to damage from previous storms,” he affirms.
With a turn of the ignition key, the tour continues winding down an earthen avenue flanked by flooded timber and ending at the bluff of the Congaree River, its swift current being the only audible sound at that moment. Inspired by the serenity, Stuart breaks the silence saying, “The Salley family is very generous with High Creek. My son caught one of the biggest bass in his life out here when Congaree Land Trust hosted an event with them. A lot of great memories were created that day for us and other families.”
Volunteers and members of Congaree Land Trust are privy to several events held annually to benefit the organization. These events typically happen on one of several properties for which Congaree Land Trust holds an easement. A day’s worth of outdoor activities such as catch-and-release fishing, birding, hiking, mountain biking, and edible plant tours await those wanting to be more involved. Another event in the spring (this year, it is April 26 at Hay Hill) called “Game & Garden” is hosted in Columbia and open to the general public.
Landowners enter into conservation easements for different reasons. Some feel compelled by their passion for the landscape, others may want to share their property with people while maintaining ownership, and some may find themselves lured by tax incentives or financial gains. Regardless of the reason, Congaree Land Trust stands ready to facilitate a conversation about conservation.
“When you ask why I care so much about conserving private property, it’s because our relationship with land creates a sense of place; the myriad of benefits that come from nurturing and protecting that relationship go far beyond the individual landowner to benefit all. That’s why we often say: it’s about more than acres,” Stuart says.