A splinter group from the original Charles Towne settlement started the second town in South Carolina on a bluff on the Edisto River in 1682.
Overlooked in many history books, it was first called New London, and later, Willtown. In the community plan, settlers laid out 250 lots for homes and businesses. A boat dock, small shops and two churches were built.
Malaria outbreaks and later plundering by British troops during the Revolutionary War led to the settlement’s collapse and made it a footnote in the Lowcountry’s rich history.
But the view from that bluff inspired a movement three centuries later that will be talked about far into the future — often while visitors admire one of the most expansive natural areas on the East Coast. The ACE Basin Task Force was born on Willtown’s bluff in 1988 and has gone much further than imagined.
Twenty years later, nearly half of the 350,000-acre basins of the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers — an area six times the size of Congaree National Park — has been protected from development. In a coastal region increasingly coveted by residential developers, private landowners instead put conservation easements on their property, banning development forever.
The novel method — mixing voluntary easements with land donations to public entities — protected land worth $500 million at an actual cost to the public of about $30 million, said Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation League.
“The model that was established has been an important one and has inspired other efforts like it throughout the country,” Beach said.
Mark Robertson, the executive director of The Nature Conservancy in South Carolina who moved to the state nine years ago, used the ACE Basin initiative as a guide for similar large projects when he was working in Virginia and Florida.
“It set a standard of how to get conservation done on a large scale using collaboration between private landowners, conservation groups and government agencies,” Robertson said.
Beach takes the importance of the ACE project a step further, noting that the public felt helpless to stop coastal development in the 1980s.
“It’s real importance is that it has given many people for the first time hope that a place of great importance is not inevitably going to be developed,” Beach said.
The ACE Basin story really started with the failure of the Willtown settlement in the 1700s. Plantations growing rice, cotton and indigo took over the coastal Edisto River bluffs and flood plains. Ownership of the land remained in large tracts until the double whammy of the Civil War and hurricanes ended the plantation era late in the 1800s.
Northern industrialists bought many of those failed plantations in the early 1900s to use as hunting preserves and/or pine tree farms. As population shifts made the South Carolina coast more desirable as a place to live, those rich owners had the opportunity to sell the land to developers.
Hilton Head Island is a classic example. Late in the 1950s, developers bought much of the island and started building golf courses and homes. It was the start of a major land-use change that accelerated in the 1980s, but the trend hit a roadblock in conservation-minded landowners in the ACE Basin.
Charleston banker Hugh Lane Sr. bought a piece of Willtown Plantation in 1942 and kept buying bigger chunks throughout his life. He finally purchased the house and grounds of the old plantation in the 1970s. His son, Charles Lane, who grew up in Charleston, spent idyllic weekends at his family’s home at Willtown Plantation.
“Friday afternoon, we jumped in the station wagon and went to the country,” Charles Lane said.
After college, Lane found work outside the Lowcountry for several years. Not long after he moved back to Charleston in 1987, he noticed a newspaper article about a Chinese businessman getting a permit for a marina on the Edisto River near Willtown, with plans for a 1,000-plus house development.
“Basically, Hilton Head was moving to Edisto Island,” Lane said, sweeping his arm to encompass the horizon-to-horizon view of unspoiled land from Willtown’s bluff. “This wouldn’t survive if that happened.”
So Lane got together with Beach to appeal the marina permit, and they won that battle.
Buoyed by the victory, the conservationists decided to come up with a plan to protect the region between Charleston and Beaufort.
“There was this thing called a conservation easement that we didn’t know anything about, but we thought it could be used to protect land from development,” Lane said. “We thought if we were really good, we could protect maybe 90,000 acres.”
The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings bought into the plan, but the key was getting landowners, both large and small, to appreciate the idea. That proved relatively easy, Lane said.
Many of the large landowners were outdoors enthusiasts more interested in maintaining that lifestyle than making money on their land. They jumped at the chance to put limitations on the future development of their own land (and get tax deductions for their potential future loss of income).
Then, Lane’s family helped kick off the conservation easement trend by putting one on its property. Media mogul Ted Turner did the same with his Hope Plantation on the southern side of the Edisto. Publishing giant Gaylord Donnelley, who already had donated nearly 8,000 acres to wildlife groups in the 1980s, put an additional 10,000 acres under easements.
Before long, easements were a major topic at cocktail parties of the Lowcountry elite, and people who refused to place an easement on their large land holdings were shunned. Fast-forward to today, and 182,000 acres in the basin are protected from development. About 50,000 is open to the public, while the rest is in private conservation easements.
On the Edisto, nearly the entire river frontage from Edisto Beach to U.S. 17-A is protected.
Bald eagles and alligators can live in their natural habitat instead of fighting for space with golfers. Creatures as diverse as the spindly-legged wood stork and the lumbering loggerhead turtle can build nests without dealing with people building homes next door. And the basin is an important wintering area for waterfowl.
The public properties draw boaters, hikers, bikers and bird-watchers. Hunters take advantage of limited seasons, and anglers cruise the rivers and creeks looking for honey holes.
“You know that old song (lyric) ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?’” Lane said. “Well the people in the ACE Basin figured out what they had before it was gone. Unlike just about any place except maybe the coast of Maine, we woke up before it was gone.”
Reach Holleman at (803) 771-8366.