Its ancient branches and majestic canopy no longer reign over the landscape on the northern end of the Cainhoy peninsula’s busiest corridor, but the historic Meeting Tree is still sparking conversations.
Despite heartfelt pleas from area residents, the Meeting Tree was officially cut down on Feb. 9 to make way for the widening of Clements Ferry Road, which is now in Phase 2 of construction.
Planners of the project explored multiple alternative options before the decision was made to remove the tree, but some in the conservation community believe that if certain funding tools were in place, the centuries-old live oak may have been spared.
“We heard from the county that there were increased costs, or increased private land easements that would have been needed to avoid the Meeting Tree,” explained Robby Maynor, Berkeley County project manager for the Coastal Conservation League (CCL). “...
Another source of funding, conservation funding, could have helped divert the road away from that valuable natural resource.”
Maynor cited two specific situations where live oaks were saved with conservation funding – the Ellis Oaks on James Island and the Angel Oak on Johns Island. In both cases, the Charleston County Greenbelt Fund provided protection.
“I can’t say if we had a conservation fund that the Meeting Tree would still be standing, but it certainly would have given a better opportunity, some more resources, some more wiggle room,” Maynor added.
The CCL is advocating for the establishment of a new Berkeley County Conservation Fund, one that would be managed by the county and used in conjunction with other existing funds, such as the Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust and the Lowcountry Land Trust, to preserve and protect local natural resources.
“This is not different or separate from what any of the land trusts are doing,” Maynor added. “This is a tool that they would be able to use to further their work, to do more of the great work they are already doing.”
According to Maynor, Berkeley County is currently one of the fastest growing counties in the nation, with a projected population of 300,000 by 2035. He described the county as the “keystone” of the Lowcountry.
“What I mean is that (Berkeley County) is the beautiful, strong rock on which the entire Lowcountry relies,” he continued. “What happens to our forests, our swamps and our farms not only has impacts on us here, but far beyond county lines as well.”
One area of focus for CCL, and an area that Maynor believes could potentially benefit from a Berkeley County Conservation Fund, is the Cainhoy peninsula.
“The Cainhoy peninsula is fascinating,” he said. “And really has a lot of historical resources in addition to the environmental resources. I think right now the proposed development at Cainhoy Plantation is probably the biggest item on the minds of citizens out there, residents and also the conservation community, because it is this vast tract of land. It serves as a buffer for the Francis Marion National Forest.”
The massive tract also has a sizable upland longleaf pine habitat and is home to colonies of red-cockaded woodpeckers, an endangered species. In addition to recreational activities like hiking, biking, hunting and fishing, Maynor sees another important benefit the 260,000-acre Francis Marion National Forest has to offer.
“To me, the biggest value that it has is as a giant lung for the Lowcountry,” he said. “It has trees that store carbon and offset carbon emissions, so it really serves as a big filter for our air. It really can’t be understated as a resource for Charleston.”
A Berkeley County Conservation Fund could support preservation of land areas for outdoor recreation, protection of habitats, preservation of outdoor spaces, or preservation of historically important sites, noted Maynor.
“This creates another source of money at the local level that can be used,” he said. “... It would be the county setting aside new funding for conservation.”
While conversations have been taking place regarding a government-managed fund like this for Berkeley County, no decisions have been made as of yet. According to Berkeley County Councilman Josh Whitley, whose district includes portions of the Cainhoy peninsula, he and County Supervisor Johnny Cribb have been “studying the issue for months.”
“I support initiatives to protect quality of life while recognizing the importance of smart high quality growth that keeps our taxes the lowest in the State of South Carolina,” said Whitley. “As to avenues and a local conservation fund, Supervisor Cribb and I ... are committed to working with partners we trust like the Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust to find the best path forward for Berkeley County, but are not prepared to make any specific announcements at this time. I am confident that once we have studied our options, the plan we put forward will be high quality and widely supported by stakeholders in Berkeley County.”
Additionally, Whitley noted that he and Cribb have held several meetings regarding long-term plans for conservation and quality of life measures and are working with key stakeholders on strategic planning.
But time is of the essence, stated Maynor, who believes creating a county conservation bank will help ensure protections are in place.
“Without certain tools that the county and citizens can use to protect their land and their natural resources, you are going to see those start to disappear,” he noted. “... There is a sense of urgency. I think this has to happen. We all need to be having these conversations now and carrying them forward because there is a lot to love and a lot to protect in Berkeley County and I think we’re all invested in that across the board.”
To learn more about the CCL’s efforts, visit coastalconservationleague.org/projects/berkeley-county-conservation-fund/.
Additionally, citizens have two other avenues to offer input on matters related to growth and planning. Information about the One Berkeley Comprehensive Plan, which will ultimately outline Berkeley County’s vision for the future and provide a blueprint to get there, can be found here: bcdcog.com/one-berkeley. The other opportunity is the Charleston City Plan, an effort to guide growth within the city over the next 10 years. For details, visit charlestoncityplan.com.