COLUMBIA, SC — Conservationist Jane Lareau, a former newspaper reporter and co-founder of one of the state’s most influential environmental groups, died Monday night at her Lowcountry home after a 13-year battle with cancer.
Lareau was 61.
A former writer with the Columbia Record, Lareau was the first full-time employee hired by Dana Beach when he launched the S.C. Coastal Conservation League in 1989. The league has now grown to a staff of 22 workers and is one of the state’s largest conservation groups, with an operational budget of about $2.5 million.
“Jane was an uncompromising advocate in the best sense of the term,” Beach said in an email Monday night to coworkers, fellow environmentalists and friends. “She gave people who didn’t know where to turn for help the unfiltered optimism and courage to protect the places they loved.
“There are very few other people I can think of who have made such an enormous contribution to protecting the natural world.”
Born in Woonsocket, R.I., Lareau was one of eight children whose parents moved to Sumter County when she was 4 years old. The family settled on the edge of a forested, swampy area – which friends say helped shape her love for the environment.
Her younger sister, Paula Lareau, said she remembers once as a child when she and Jane snuck out of their room one night simply to enjoy the beautiful summer evening.
“She just wanted to dance in the moonlight,” Paula Lareau said. “She had a love of the world and everything in it.”
Jane Lareau graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1971, then worked as a journalist for the old Columbia Record, The State newspaper and what later became The (Charleston) Post and Courier.
But conservation issues were her calling. Feisty and outspoken but almost always cheerful, Lareau helped protect the Congaree Swamp from logging in the 1970s. The swamp, southeast of Columbia, later became a national monument and now is South Carolina’s only national park.
“She had a fighting spirit, which I always admired, but she also had a gift for language and being able to tell stories, and that made a difference with people,” said Ann Timberlake, the director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, who worked with Lareau to protect Congaree Swamp.
Beach said one of his most vivid memories of Lareau was her effort to stop the proposed Interstate 73 from cutting through the Francis Marion National Forest to Charleston. Dissatisfied by a state Department of Transportation forum that discouraged public speaking, she brought her own podium to the session and let people speak in the meeting room, Beach said.
Lareau also scored a major victory for conservation groups in the 1990s when she led efforts to protect Sandy Island, an unspoiled area of coastal Georgetown County that was being targeted for development. And she is credited with helping derail a bridge through the pristine Sparkleberry Swamp, a vast wetland along the upper Santee River between Columbia and Sumter. The $150 million bridge project would have linked two towns with just a few hundred people.
Beach said Lareau’s last year had been a difficult one as she continued to fight ovarian cancer. She finally succumbed at her house in the Mt. Pleasant area Monday at about 9 p.m., he said.
“She was a superstar,” Beach said.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by J. Henry Stuhr’s, Mt. Pleasant Chapel.