A warm sun beat back the chill Sunday, as 400 people gathered to celebrate a shining example of Lowcountry ingenuity.
The 25th anniversary of the ACE Basin Project was toasted as a local success and national model for land conservation. Through a collaboration of private landowners, nonprofits, businesses and state and federal agencies, 217,000 acres of the 1.1 million-acre area between Beaufort and Charleston have been saved from potential development.
"We're going to stay at it as long as there is one piece of property not protected," said Charles G. Lane of Charleston, the current and original chairman of a task force that set out to protect the environmentally sensitive land drained by the Ashepoo, Combahee and South Edisto rivers.
Lane told the crowd gathered at Nemours Plantation in northernmost Beaufort County that good luck, hard work and teamwork has resulted in what The Nature Conservancy calls "one of the world's last great places."
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Keynote speaker Robert F. Bonnie, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and environment, said the tree-framed vista behind him -- with water hugging golden marsh grass and green river banks -- represents a "blank place on the map." He was talking about conservationist Aldo Leopold, who said, "To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part."
The local effort will protect water quality, wetlands, wildlife and a way of life that includes hunting, fishing, farming and timber harvesting.
Equally important is how it was done.
"Here's a place where partnerships and cooperation have won out," Bonnie said. "You all were one of the first, and lots of people have watched what you have done."
He said ACE is an example of the latest conservation buzzwords: "landscape-scale conservation."
That means environmental goals -- whether it's preserving the elk of Yellowstone National Park or the fish of St. Helena Sound -- demand work across boundaries of federal, state and private land. It involves many agencies, tribes and nonprofit organizations.
In the ACE Basin, key partners are the 150 private landowners who placed conservation easements on large tracts, along with Ducks Unlimited, the Nemours Wildlife Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, the Beaufort County Open Land Trust, Edisto Island Open Land Trust, Lowcountry Open Land Trust, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the MeadWestvaco corporation.
"Also, the way you have done it is influencing policy," Bonnie said. When conservation dollars are added to the Farm Bill or other legislation, he said, "We can point to where this is working on the ground. You have affected conservation in a very positive way all across the country."
Bonnie knows the Lowcountry well. He spent Christmases at the 22,000-acre Groton Plantation in Allendale and Hampton counties. It was established by his grandfather, banker and conservationist Robert D. Winthrop. The family recently put 8,000 acres of bottomland hardwood swamp along the Savannah River into a conservation easement.
Bonnie said the tight cultural and historical connection between the people and their Lowcountry land is unusual.
Paul Schmidt, chief conservation officer for Ducks Unlimited, said his organization's efforts to conserve wetlands in the Lower 48 states began in the ACE Basin.
He said he's often asked why the ACE Basin model works.
"It's because the vision was local," he said. "It came from the hearts and minds of the people who were here. It didn't come from Columbia, or Washington or Memphis, where we are headquartered."
The human connection to the land was seen in a number of exhibits set up beneath the live oaks.
Virginia Christian Beach signed her new book about the region, "Rice & Ducks: The Surprising Convergence That Saved the Carolina Lowcountry."
Franklin Burroughs and Vincent Musi, writer and photographer of an article at ACE in the current National Geographic entitled "Lowcountry Legacy" were there.
The S.C. Department of Transportation brought its Combahee Ferry Historic District traveling exhibit.
And Chester DePratter and James Spirek showed archeological findings from ACE Basin lands and rivers.
Colden R. Battey Jr. spoke on behalf of the Nemours Wildlife Foundation and Friends of Nemours; Ernie P. Wiggers Jr., the Nemours Foundation's president, spoke about research going on in the basin; Michael G. McShane, a past task force chairman, emceed the event; and Coy Johnston, who made a lot of the easement deals go, was called "the Reverend" for the first time in his life when he said grace.
Lowcountry Produce Market and Cafe of Beaufort catered a traditional lunch including barbecue, Frogmore Stew and red rice.
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.