COLUMBIA, SC — Dick Watkins stood inside the 701 Whaley banquet hall Wednesday, a shy smile on his face as 400 people cheered his four decades of work to save the Congaree swamp and the forests that surround it.
An insatiable researcher who shuns attention, Watkins is one of the least visible – but most important – players in protecting the scenic lowlands of Sumter, Calhoun and lower Richland counties.
In the late 1960s, Watkins was among the first South Carolina residents to recognize that a towering old growth forest southeast of Columbia needed preservation. Watkins and a handful of others took the lead in writing letters to politicians and organizing public events against logging the Congaree swamp.
The federal government eventually acquired the land, designating it a national monument in 1976. In 2003, Congress approved the swamp as a national park, the first in South Carolina.
But Watkins’ work continued after the creation of Congaree National Park, a more than 20,000-acre preserve in Richland County. He has since worked to expand the park with additional property.
And today at age 71, he chairs a task force that has protected more than 100,000 acres in the Cowassee basin, an area made up of the Wateree, Santee and Congaree river watersheds. Watkins is credited with persuading landowners to agree not to develop property in the basin and near the park.
At its annual Green Tie luncheon Wednesday, the Conservation Voters of South Carolina recognized Watkins with a lifetime achievement award.
“I hope I’ll contribute further achievements in future years,” the one-time Ohio resident said, noting that while he appreciates the award, “many people are responsible for conservation accomplishments in the Congaree River corridor and the Cowassee basin.”
Watkins, a St. Matthews-area resident who has preserved his own property from development, moved south in 1965 while working with the DuPont company.
Wednesday’s Conservation Voters awards luncheon also recognized influential environmentalist Dana Beach, who founded the S.C. Coastal Conservation League in 1989; Rep. Chandra Dillard, a Greenville Democrat who has fought efforts to loosen environmental laws; Sen. Wes Hayes, a York Republican who helped push a surface water protection bill though the Legislature in 2010; and Rep. Walton McLeod, a Newberry Democrat and critic of companies seeking to ease environmental rules in the Legislature.
McLeod drew a raucous ovation after urging conservationists to fight powerful, well-funded interests that “haunt the halls (and) the lobby of the State House the entire legislative year.”
The fifth-annual luncheon is a major fundraiser for the Conservation Voters, the political arm of environmental groups in South Carolina. Well-heeled environmentalists and some corporations spent more than $1,000 apiece to sponsor tables at the event. All told, the Conservation Voters expected to raise about $50,000 from the luncheon, which drew about 400 people.
As for Watkins, Conservation Voters director Ann Timberlake said environmentalists couldn’t have preserved the Congaree swamp without him.
Timberlake, who helped lead the push to protect the Congaree swamp in the 1970s, said the even-tempered Watkins helped the protection movement because he was so organized. While fellow environmentalists came up with valuable ideas on how to save the Congaree swamp, Watkins executed the campaigns, Timberlake said.
“He never sought attention,” she said. “He just wanted to get the job done.”