The fight for our green future
On February 13, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) wrapped up a public comment period regarding the proposal to create the largest saltwater mitigation bank in South Carolina history on the southwestern side of Daniel Island, bringing the conclusion of a proposal that has been in the works for the better part of a year one step closer.
The concept was originally brought to the State Ports Authority (SPA), the owner of some 1300 acres of land on Daniel Island, by the Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust (LBCT). If the proposal is approved by the ACOE, about one million cubic yards of soil and vegetation will be removed from the 134-acre parcel so that the tide will again come in to the wetland area, returning the property to its natural state.
If it moves forward, the saltwater mitigation project would be a signature of the Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust, a non-profit organization formed in 1992 and dedicated to preserving the Lowcountry’s natural forest, farmlands, wetlands, and historic sites for generations to come. And while the project would serve as a southern anchor of the Trust’s efforts on the Cooper River, it would be only a piece of the organization’s larger efforts. After all, the Moncks Corner-based LBCT has protected over 25,000 acres in the Lowcountry in the organization’s 25-year history.
The Daniel Island tract would be the first saltwater mitigation project in the LBCT’s history, but taking on new, different methods to serve their greater mission is what the organization is all about, according to Raleigh West, the LBCT’s executive director. Since being hired as the first full-time employee in the organization’s history three years ago, West has taken the Trust’s model of operation and applied it to a broader scope of potential projects.
“Local land trusts, one of the neat things about them is that they have a broader mission,” said West. “Ducks Unlimited protects duck habitats, the Nature Conservancy does really critical nature-oriented projects, but there’s a lot more to conservation than just that. When we started in 1992 we were an all-volunteer organization. It was a bunch of local guys who were really concerned about the Cooper River, that’s where most of the focus was.”
“When I got there three and a half years ago, I took a look at it and there are still some holes to fill on the Cooper River, but we looked at the broader region,” West continued. “There are so many opportunities on the Santee River and the Ashley River headwaters, and the Four Holes Swamp. We put it all together and said ‘this is our expanded focus area.’”
According to West, the LBCT has a “river-centric model” because those are typically the most sensitive habitats. There are also a lot of historic properties along the water, he said.
“Which is why the Daniel Island project makes so much sense, because it’s right there where two rivers run alongside of it,” added LBCT Board Member Mac McQuillin, who joined West for an interview with The Daniel Island News.
From McQuillin’s point of view, the entire scope of the organization broadened when West was hired. Not only did he bring to the organization a day-to-day presence, noted McQuillin, but West had already built an impressive conservation resume when he came onboard. Additionally, West has a unique skill set built upon his impressive educational background, which includes both a legal degree and an MBA.
“(Hiring West has) had a tremendous impact on the amount of projects we’ve been able to do and the amount of time we’ve been able to devote to them,” said McQuillin, a Daniel Island resident who also serves on the Berkeley County School Board. “And frankly having Raleigh there with his legal training, he’s got an MBA and a law degree, most of what he does in terms of the legalities of conservation easements and working with the government - it’s been a huge benefit.”
As to what West and the small team he’s hired at the LBCT are doing, the business of the Trust begins by approaching private landowners and presenting conservation options to them for their property. If the landowner is willing, the Trust walks the property owner through the complicated process of protecting it; something West admits is aided by his legal background.
“The nuts and bolts of what we do is real estate, and so at the end of the day the legal training definitely helps,” said West. “It’s complex real estate. It’s not just buying and selling dirt. You have to comply with a nuanced tax code that triggers with the donations of easements, and that’s just the easement part of it. Now you need to infuse funds from state and federal grants and you’ve got all those conditions and hoops to jump through.”
With respect to the SPA saltwater mitigation bank proposal on Daniel Island, a project West states “they are finalizing the details of” currently, the idea was the same - to approach the property owner and present options for them to potentially conserve a tract of land that would otherwise be used in another way. The trick, in the case of the Port property, was to provide the SPA a way to use the property in a revenue-producing way, but a way that achieves the end goals of the LBCT as well. Enter the concept of the saltwater mitigation bank.
“We were looking at it and we said, ‘what a better spot?’ It needs to be restored, so we talked to (the SPA) and said ‘maybe there’s an opportunity to have a conservation outcome that gives y’all funds, generates revenue for you but also has a conservation outcome that doesn’t rely on us going out chasing limited grants that are around,’” said West. “Really all we did was saw a need that the Port had to divest of the property. We wanted a conservation outcome and we pitched the idea that this might be something they could do. The Port really took the ball and ran with it.”
“The idea is to restore it and by doing that they get to create a saltwater mitigation bank and sell those credits and we get to improve the water quality and create a public amenity,” West continued. “That’s the big issue and people take it for granted. How many times do we go out and shoot ducks on the Cooper River or catch Redfish? You don’t do that in Flint, Michigan anymore.”
And while the business of conserving the Lowcountry is a difficult one, the task is of the utmost importance according to West. For him, their job is not simply to preserve for conservation’s sake, it is to protect part of the Lowcountry’s allure, to protect the natural environment that is so closely related to Charleston’s charm and so tied to its ability to attract new business to the region. But for West, the job is made easier by the fact the city seems to collectively recognize the importance of the natural environment.
“There’s a very strong conservation ethic amongst the landowners here and we’ve been very fortunate,” said West. “Even the business folks have bought into it, for them it’s a quality of life thing. At their business, their ability to do things like recruit talented employees is enhanced if it’s a great place to live. It’s much bigger than saving butterflies and alligators. It’s a quality of life issue for the whole region.”
“When we were kids, we took it for granted that we have this pristine beach that we can go surf at or this river where we can go fishing or this duck endowment where we can go hunting,” interjected McQuillin. “But now as we get older and you look at your young children you start to see things disappear. The cool thing is that when our children are our age and maybe they’re at a Daniel Island park and they’re looking over at this pristine marsh that’s there where everything else is developed and they can say ‘our dads played a role in protecting this.’ That’s a pretty cool concept.”
For more information on the Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust and its projects, visit http://lordberkeley.org.