In major conservation victory, Buckfield is now protected land that allows hunting and restricts growth | hilton head

YEMASSEE — Environmentalists can be very pessimistic these days. But on a balmy, cloudy morning in late August, as they stumbled across a longleaf pine savanna where Jasper and Hampton counties meet, Matthew Williams and Patrick Moore were excited about the fate of the flora and fauna of South Carolina.

“I’m going to… keep an eye out for tortoises,” said Williams, a top fundraiser for The Nature Conservancy in South Carolina, craning his neck out the truck window.

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A gopher tortoise, hiding underground, on protected property adjacent to Buckfield, named Slater. Patrick Moore/Provided

“They are amazing animals,” said Moore, a senior project manager at the Open Space Institute. “In addition to fresh burrows, tortoises are home to 350 other species of plants and animals.”

Many of those plants and animals, along with hundreds more, live in 7,300 acres of farmland and forest known as Buckfield. In recent decades, private owners have used the land for timber production and hunting.

When it became clear that the property would come to market, The Nature Conservancy scrambled to raise more than $16 million to buy half of it in June.

The Open Space Institute is buying the other half this year.

The conservation groups’ entire parcel, along with an adjoining 5,000 acres owned by the Open Space Institute, will eventually be managed by the state Department of Natural Resources. It will be open to the public.

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an incredible place

It’s hard to say which property feature Williams and Moore are most excited about.

Buckfield has “something like 32 miles of creek, 5 miles of Coosawhatchie … and one of the most impressive bayou cathedrals I’ve ever seen,” Williams said.

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Buckfield includes several longleaf pines, often used for telephone poles. Paul Nurnberg/Provided

Moore chimed in from the backseat, wondering if people in Charleston or Hilton Head Island, both just over an hour from Buckfield, knew how special the area was.

“You have this amazing place that has these fox squirrels and indigo snakes and crazy tortoises and woodpeckers and wildflowers and pitcher plants,” he said. “It’s a world-class resource.”

I’m sure the place is nice. On the savannah, undergrowth and ferns create a stiff green carpet. Occasionally, the narrow, bare trunk of a longleaf or loblolly sticks out like an exclamation point.

Eventually, the flat land turns into a jungle valley, where Williams and Moore cast fishing lines down a slow, dark meander of the Coosawhatchie. The river water looks black, Williams explained, because fallen leaves stain it like tea.

During the two hours that Williams and Moore poked around the property, they envisioned everyone who stands to benefit from it: deer hunters and quail hunters; locals and tourists; freshwater anglers and ATV-ers; mountain bikers and horseback riders; humanity itself.

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the pacific yew

“Have you ever heard of the Pacific yew?” Moore asked.

The tree grew in the undergrowth of trees that were cut down for timber. They were burned like garbage to near extinction. Scientists then discovered that they could be used to treat some types of breast cancer.

The Pacific yew, Moore said, shows why it’s important to protect places like Buckfield, home to a wide variety of plants and animals. “Biodiversity has this inherent value for things that we know about … but also for things that we haven’t discovered yet,” he said.

“Biodiversity is also important just for the survival of the human species,” Williams said. “If we have a breakdown in our natural systems, we’re next.”

So as part of a larger conservation strategy, Buckfield is a critical piece. For about 10 minutes, Moore and Williams looked at a map showing how Buckfield and other protected lands could help maintain the state’s ecology and clean water, even as its population grows.

Buckfield is at the head of Port Royal Sound, Moore noted. Even if people who live in Hilton Head never get there, they should still be concerned about what happens in Jasper County, “because it also goes through the Broad River and ultimately the May River,” Moore said.

There are many good things happening with conservation in South Carolina, both men agreed. But, sounding a note of caution for the first time, Moore added: “Councils change, and county administrators change, and recessions happen and, you know, vigilance is required.”

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Kelly Jean Kelly covers Hilton Head Island and Beaufort for The Post and Courier. She has also worked as a broadcast journalist and grant leader for The OpEd Project, which seeks to expand the range and diversity of voices in the public conversation.