A former state wildlife department lawyer says his agency dropped plans to prevent black bears from being killed on a new road near Myrtle Beach after a state legislator “browbeat’’ the department.
Paul League, retired legal counsel at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said then-state Rep. Nelson Hardwick was among the Horry County officials who were upset about installing bear culverts and high fencing along the proposed road between Myrtle Beach and Conway.
During testimony Wednesday at a trial over issuing environmental permits for the five-laned road, League said Hardwick and U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, a former Horry County Council chairman, voiced their displeasure at a meeting several years ago that he attended. The meeting touched on several topics, including the discussion of bear passageways, he said. After the meeting, the DNR in 2013 dropped its demand for culverts and tall fences to protect bears, records show.
“It had been indicated to us, and indicated at that meeting, that bear passages were not necessary,’’ League said. The meeting then became contentious, League told the state Administrative Law Court.
“Parts of it, the conversation, degenerated into arguments (and) was fairly heated, particularly in conversation with Mr. Hardwick,’’ League said during the second day of testimony in the permit hearing.
“Hardwick, in particular, just browbeat us about the road,’’ League said in a Feb. 2 deposition. Asked Wednesday by lawyer Amy Armstrong if he stood by those comments, League replied: “Yes.’’
League later told The State newspaper the county’s displeasure with the bear passageway plan influenced the DNR’s decision not to require the culverts and tall fencing. The DNR agreed in a 2010 contract with the county that bear protections would be required along the new road. The DNR later tore up that contract and in 2013 struck an agreement with the county that did not include the culverts and high fences.
“If the county had never said anything after the contract was entered into, I don’t think it would have changed,’’ League told The State.
DNR director Alvin Taylor, who was in the meeting with League and Hardwick, said he did not feel pressure to change the agency’s decision. Taylor said the DNR changed its decision after deciding the fences and culverts would not work. Hardwick told The State Wednesday night he did nothing improper.
At issue is the future of a road, estimated to cost more than $16 million, that would be built through an area that historically has had some of the greatest numbers of bears in South Carolina. The road, known as International Drive, would skirt the wetlands-studded Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve near Conway.
Business leaders, Horry County officials and some local residents favor the road as a way to ease highway congestion on a part of the coast with major tourist traffic and exploding growth.
But environmentalists have appealed environmental permits for the road, arguing the bear culverts and fencing are needed to help bears move from the nature preserve to other land they need for survival. Fences and culverts would entice bears to stay off the road, which would reduce collisions with cars — a long-time problem on Horry County thoroughfares.
Emails obtained by The State show Horry County officials were interested in dropping the bear culverts. Adding three bear passages could drive up the road’s cost by $3 million, officials have said. An April 11, 2013, email from Assistant Horry County Administrator Steve Gosnell to Hardwick said “thank you for bull-dogging this issue. Without your help, this would have never happened.” The agreement not to require passageways and high fencing was finalized in June 2013.
Hardwick said Wednesday he likely made pointed remarks at a meeting with League, but said he did not put any undo pressure on the department. Hardwick is a former chairman of the House Agriculture, Environmental Affairs and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees legislation and regulations that affect the Department of Natural Resources. He later served on the House budget committee, but said he was not on that panel when the bear passageway discussions were going on.
“I don’t recall threatening anybody, but I do recall having a conversation about it,” Hardwick said. “I asked them some pointed questions about who was going to train the bear .... how to teach them to go (through the culverts) and all this sort of stuff and that sort of thing. My thought was if you put a five-laned section of road through there .... don’t worry about the fences. The bear can climb the fence. But he’d be better off scampering across the road, I thought, dodging cars with a slower speed limit.”
Hardwick, a Republican from Surfside Beach, resigned from the House in May 2015. He was later indicted on a misconduct-in-office charge. The S.C. Attorney General’s office said Hardwick “inappropriately” touched a legislative staffer. Hardwick denies the charge and said he looks forward to his day in court.
Attempts to reach Rice were not successful, but current Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said the DNR made the decision to drop the bear culverts — not local officials.