Easement boosts Cowasee basin project

The effort to preserve the Cowasee Basin's natural corridor along the Congaree, Wateree and Santee rivers has gained another boost from a conservation easement protecting a 1,900-acre tract between U.S. 601 and the Wateree River in Richland County.

Five years into the effort, nearly one-third of the targeted 215,000 acres has been protected from development.

Of course, the 24,000-acre Congaree National Park and Santee Cooper's 16,000-acre Santee Swamp gave the effort a great head start. But the folks trying to duplicate the success of the Lowcountry's ACE Basin keep adding new protected acreage each year.

The Wateree easement in Richland County, along with a 90-acre easement nearby, were negotiated by the Congaree Land Trust last year. The 1,900-acre easement ensures nature will rule a tract once owned by pioneer conservationist and former Camden Mayor Henry Savage, who literally wrote the book on the glory of the area ("River of the Carolinas: The Santee"). Savage died in 1990.

The tract is owned by the Beidlers, the Chicago family that bought much of central South Carolina's river bottom forest to feed its timber operations in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The easement allows the Beidlers to cut timber on the property and continue leasing the land to a hunt club. But the tract, which includes 800 upland acres ideal for development, will remain in its natural state.

"I don't think it was a difficult decision," said Francis Beidler III of putting the easement on the property. "We're not developers. We've never done that in the state. We're in the tree business."

The Beidler family once owned most of the current Congaree National Park in Richland County, the current Francis Beidler Forest in Dorchester County, and lots of land in-between. Though the Beidlers' Santee River Cypress Lumber Co. felled plenty of trees, the company treated its property well and held on to it through generations of regrowth.

In part because of the expense of removing timber from the swampiest locales, about 10,000 acres in Congaree National Park and 1,800 acres in Beidler Forest weren't cut and remain the largest old-growth tracts on the East Coast.

Those tracts were sold - to the federal government or to Audubon - but the Beidlers still own plenty of land in South Carolina. Through the years, the family has built a bond with the state.

"It's a beautiful state, and we love to come down there," Beidler said.

The extended family stays at a Richland County hunt club each Thanksgiving. They hunt deer that week, and many come back in spring for turkey hunts.

Beidler hasn't spent much time on the 1,900-acre tract the family recently put under conservation easement. He said it's special because it runs the gamut from river bottom hardwood forest to upland pine forest close to U.S. 601.

"It's referred to as the Savage tract because Henry Savage used to own it," Beidler said. "He was a great advocate for the state and for conservation. Somewhere, Henry Savage is smiling that that property has been protected."

The easement limits the number of buildings that can be added to the property, but it doesn't provide public access. Similar easements have helped protect nearly 100,000 acres in the ACE Basin, named for the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers in the Lowcountry. With publicly owned lands, the protected portion of the ACE Basin comprises more than 200,000 acres.

In the Cowasee Basin, various conservation groups have easements on about 24,000 acres.

The Cowasee task force is working on a Web site and maps to help the public discover the waterways and public lands in the basin. In the past year, they put up Cowasee Basin signs at boat landings and on major roads leading into the area.

"We're very encouraged considering we've only been around five years," said John Cely, the Congaree Land Trust liaison with the Cowasee Basin effort. "The more people we can educate about the Cowasee Basin, the more we can get people interested in easements."