The City Magazine Since 1975

United They Stand

United They Stand
February 2009
An impressive cadre of land preservationists work together to fight urban sprawl

Let me show you what I mean,” says Dana Beach, flipping through files stacked on his desk. The founder and driving for­ce behind the influential Coastal Conse­rvation Le­a­gue (CCL) is discussing strip malls, urban sprawl, and the possible extension of Interstate 526, and he is in search of a visual aid. We are soon examining a series of maps designed to reveal the spread of civilization in the Lowcountry over the past 25 years. Developed acreage is colored in red, an eye-catching smear that expands with each successive map. From a distance, one could mistake the images as laboratory slides depicting the growth of a virus. The facts remain: in 1973, the Charleston metropolitan area claimed an approximate 45,000 acres. By 1994, that number had swelled past 160,000. Experts at CCL project that by 2030, urban expansion could claim a whopping 555,520 acres, forever altering the Lowcountry landscape. For his part, Beach has been worried about conservation for a very long time. He founded CCL in 1989, at a time when Charleston had little in the way of organized environmental advocacy. Over the intervening decades, Beach and his staff have established themselves as the preeminent force in Lowcountry conservation and sustainability efforts, operating dozens of programs and employing every conceivable weapon in the conservationist’s arsenal. “We have a broader toolbox than some other organizations,” says Megan Desrosiers, CCL’s director of conservation programs. That toolbox includes state and federal lobbying, independent research and growth planning, zoning proposals, public awareness campaigns, and, if necessary, litigation. The Charleston area boasts an impressive collection of organizations, spearheaded by CCL, that are dedicated to preserving and protecting land. While most are involved in other aspects of sustainability, issue advocacy, or pet projects, they are united by the common cause of conservation. Beach’s multicolored maps are no secret, and the shared fear of acre-by-acre destruction motivates these men and women to work together and work fast. In the battle to preserve land and promote smart growth, CCL is easily the largest and most visible organization in the area. It’s efforts are typified in the struggle over Charleston County’s plans to extend I-526 through John’s Island, a move the organization opposes. Since the extension was announced, CCL has financed opposition groups and alternative studies, and even enlisted the help of the Southern Environmental Law Center to explore legal options for blocking the move. While obstructing a highway project intended to reach an already developed area may not fit the classic description of “conservation,” the impact on the surrounding landscape can hardly be overstated. “If you zone something as rural, then connect a highway to it, it won’t stay rural for long,” Desrosiers explains. According to experts at CCL, such projects create a ripple effect of development, collapsing existing boundaries and irreversibly altering the landscape. The I-526 battle will be lengthy and expensive, an effort that is simply out of reach for most area environmental groups. “We’re the only ones who can do this,” Desrosiers says, “but we wouldn’t be as effective as other groups are in their specific roles.” Indeed, a host of smaller organizations takes part in Charleston’s multifaceted conservation battle. While they may not boast the resources or public profile of CCL, they play a critical part in securing and protecting acreage from future development. “Our work is person-to-person,” explains Lowcountry Open Land Trust executive director Will Haynie. Operating at the other end of the spectrum from CCL, Haynie interacts with individual landowners to secure easements or legally binding contracts to protect land in perpetuity, providing some of the most lasting contributions to area conservation. For a powerful example of how an easement can change the landscape, look no further than the Charleston Audubon Society’s McAlhaney Nature Preserve in Dorchester County. Donated in 1986, this 318-acre property was formally placed under easement with Lowcountry Open Land Trust in 2001 to ensure its continued protection from development. Today, the preserve is host to occasional birding tours, campouts, and visits from other Audubon chapters to admire its pristine beauty. And due to the terms of its easement, that uneventful schedule isn’t likely to change next month, next year, or next century. Such lasting protection allows long-term habitat preservation projects that would be impossible under the shifting terms of county zoning ordinances or individual ownership. “We’re currently in our third year of an effort to reintroduce native flora and fauna to the area,” reports Charleston Audubon Society president Andy Harrison. “We’re attracting quail, sparrows, and other species back to the preserve, returning the habitat to its original appearance.” In addition to Haynie’s work, a number of other organizations secure specific protections in the context of their unique agendas. Chris Vaughn, a South Carolina land protection coordinator with Ducks Unlimited, argues that a landowner’s choice of conservation has much to do with their personal aspirations. “All of these organizations have different priorities and mandates. For example, we’re very interested in protecting land for wintering waterfowl—no one else is driven by that purpose.” Despite their wildly divergent constituencies and funding sources, conservation groups across the Lowcountry have managed to remain closely connected. “We’re too tight to be played off against each other,” Haynie contends, a sentiment echoed by his colleagues in other organizations. Without exception, this collaborative atmosphere is attributed to common goals, personal relationships, and a shared devotion to the land they’re working to protect. Perched over his multicolored maps, Beach projects the restless energy of a man on a mission. “You can really only point to a handful of places in the country like this, unique landscapes that are truly irreplaceable,” he muses. When asked if he ever feels like he is fighting a losing battle, he laughs and shakes his head. “I really don’t. But I know there is still so much to be done.”