EASTOVER, SC — On a stunning fall afternoon, Larry Faulkenberry showed off his private nature preserve to scores of folks who were aware of the old rice plantation but who never had toured the property.
What they saw Sunday were high river bluffs, deep swamps, historic graves, ancient rice fields and mixed forests of hardwoods and pines near the banks of the Wateree River in lower Richland County.
Goodwill Plantation, which Faulkenberry acquired in the mid-1990s, holds what may be the key to digging a mega gold mine about an hour up the road in Lancaster County.
In exchange for federal approval to dig up the gold, Canadian miners are offering to buy Goodwill Plantation and nearby Cook’s Mountain for $23 million, give the land to the state and create a large, publicly accessible nature preserve.
Less known than Cook’s Mountain, Goodwill makes up more than half of the 3,700-acre proposal in Richland County.
But the land protection plan has its detractors because miles of creeks and an unusually large slice of wetlands will be destroyed in Lancaster County during the gold mining operation.
So support for preserving Goodwill Plantation could be significant as regulators decide whether to permit the gold mine near the town of Kershaw.
For the several hundred people who gathered for an annual meeting of the Congaree Land Trust, the diverse, wooded landscape could not have been more eye-catching Sunday afternoon.
Everywhere people looked, autumn foliage glinted in the bright sunlight, whether in a river bottom or the side of a high bluff along the Wateree.
“It’s fantastic property,’’ said John Fairey, an Orangeburg resident as he stood on a 100-foot tall bluff overlooking the Wateree River. “The history and the landscape are impressive. Just amazing.’’
LaBruce Alexander, a conservationist from Lower Richland, said she, too, liked what she saw. That makes the question of what to do about the gold mine a hard one to answer, she said. Alexander said she had visited the property years ago, but Sunday’s visit reinforced how impressed she was with Goodwill.
“This is an extremely difficult question,’’ Alexander said of whether to permit the gold mine and protect Goodwill Plantation. “The property is great. There are very few tracts of this size like this left intact.’’
Goodwill Plantation, which hugs the Wateree River between Richland and Sumter counties, is full of historic sites that, upon careful inspection, reveal its past as a 1700s-era rice plantation.
A network of earthen dikes once used in the cultivation of rice runs throughout the lower sections of Goodwill Plantation. The old rice fields have become overgrown with towering oaks, gums, cypress and other trees.
In one spot, Faulkenberry pointed out a dike that was built to hold back the Wateree River from sending too much water onto Goodwill Plantation.
Goodwill, however, is more than a historic site. It’s filled with wildlife, unusual natural land formations and blackwater creeks that flow toward the Wateree River.
The river bluff Fairey stood on is one of the highest spots in the otherwise flat land of Sumter and Lower Richland counties.
Looking down the bank, the property gave visitors the impression they were in the mountains, rather than central South Carolina. Only nearby Cook’s Mountain, at just under 400 feet above sea level, is taller than the approximately 100-foot high bluffs at Goodwill Plantation.
Down below the bluff, a gum swamp stood darkly along the edges of the river, Spanish moss draping from branches of tall trees. The swamp was filled not only with gum trees, but also with wide cypress trees found so commonly through South Carolina’s coastal plain.
Faulkenberry, a former Lancaster County resident, said he’s seen bobcats, foxes, coyotes and birds of prey, including hawks and bald eagles.
Standing on an old road near a now dry rice field, Faulkenberry recounted the story of an uncle named Morgan who saw a black bear in the forest while smoking a cigarette about 10 years ago. The bear stood on its hind legs as his uncle leaned against a tractor, scaring his relative so badly the man dashed away. Soon afterward, bear tracks were found on Cook’s Mountain nearby.
“Uncle Morgan wasn’t exaggerating, he did see a bear,’’ Faulkenberry said.
Faulkenberry and his family have managed the property since buying it in the 1990s, keeping roads clear for easy access through the land. The entrance to the property resembles a park, with widely dispersed trees and little underbrush. The land also has nature trails. Those features are particularly attractive to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources if it took control of the land.
Not all of Goodwill Plantation would be deeded to the DNR if the gold mine is approved.
Faulkenberry plans to keep several hundred acres around the home he built on a mill pond. But he said he also intends to put much of the land he keeps in a conservation easement, a legal protection from future land development. At one point in the past, he was considering selling some of the property for high-end homes.
“Goodwill is a lot bigger than us,’’ Faulkenberry said. “We just wanted somehow, some way to protect it so the generations can come and enjoy it.’’