Mid-Atlantic
30 foot high dunes can be found on Waties Island. (Photo by Richard Caines, Staff)

SC - Commentary: Saving Waties Island is South Carolina conservation at its best

At the northeastern tip of the Grand Strand lies a hidden sanctuary — an undeveloped maritime forest and beach in an area where nearly every acre of oceanfront land has been converted to condominiums, hotels and residential subdivisions. The soon-to-be designated state heritage preserve is called Waties Island, a green oasis in a virtually unbroken, 50-mile-long wall of development.

This island is a last refuge for coastal wildlife in the region. In the 1950s, Rachel Carson visited the Grand Strand and recounted her impressions in her bestselling book, “The Edge of the Sea.”

She describes in eloquent language the myriad species of birds, fish, mollusks, crustaceans and other marine life she found there. Today, much of that habitat has been lost — the flora and fauna disrupted and displaced.

But not on Waties Island. The story of its preservation is an inspiring illustration of our state’s unmatched capacity to accomplish land protection of enduring importance.

More than almost anywhere else in the nation, South Carolina conservationists are collaborative and nonpartisan.

Further, South Carolina land trusts work closely with environmental law and advocacy groups. Natural resource agencies often partner with private sector organizations. And more often than not, conservation is supported by business and political leaders across the spectrum.

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The preservation of this special place is a testament to South Carolina’s brand of collaborative conservation. Permanent protection of the island began in 1995 when The Nature Conservancy, one of the organizations that launched the conservation movement in the state, secured an easement on 1,000 acres on its western side.

Leading the effort to protect this easternmost parcel was the Open Space Institute, a newcomer to the conservation community here.

Founded in 1974, the institute honed its expertise creating public parks and nature preserves in the Northeast, partnering in the protection of more than 2.3 million acres.

In 2015, the organization opened an office in Charleston. Since that time, it has participated in permanently securing more than 35,000 acres in South Carolina, including some of our most ecologically significant lands.

For the past two decades, the driving force behind Waties’ conservation has been landowner Olivia Boyce-Able, a granddaughter of Horace Tilghman, the timberman who bought the island in the 1920s.

Boyce-Able grew up visiting Waties in the summer, and those experiences inspired a lifelong commitment to conservation and land protection. She explained to MyHorryNews: “Being in nature assists people in being closer to God.”

The protection of Waties Island almost unraveled when an adjacent landowner claimed possession of a portion of the property. Fortunately, that challenge was overcome with help from the Georgetown-based S.C. Environmental Law Project, which defended Boyce-Abel’s claim to the property.

The S.C. Conservation Bank provided $4 million for the purchase, to be repaid from other funding sources. The lead donor for the island’s protection is Google, and that company’s $500,000 contribution was facilitated by Columbia-based Sustain SC, a nonprofit organization that works with businesses to promote environmental sustainability.

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