It began in 1971 with an empty lot and a "For Sale" sign.
Three residents -- Marguerite Broz, Betty Waskiewicz and John M. Trask Jr. -- heard about plans to build condominiums along the south side of Beaufort's pristine Bay Street that would cut into a scenic marsh overlook.
"The three of us got together and said, 'We need to do something,' " Trask recalls. "We were concerned that new construction would block those vistas."
They borrowed $5,000, purchased the property and paid the money back by selling 50 tickets to a $100-a-plate fundraiser.
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Thus, the Beaufort County Open Land Trust -- the first organization of its kind in South Carolina -- was born.
Fast forward 40 years, and much has changed. Today, the nonprofit group dedicated to preserving environmentally sensitive land and open space has four paid employees, 700 members and 14,000 acres of protected land.
But what hasn't changed -- in part, thanks to the trust, supporters say -- are some of the area's panoramic views.
"What Beaufort looks like today would be a very different visual if the Open Land Trust hadn't been operating in this county for 40 years," said executive director Ann Bluntzer said. "We'd probably look like Myrtle Beach. It would be an entirely different place."
For the first 20 years, the trust was an all-volunteer organization.
"We had very humble beginnings but lots of enthusiasm," Trask said.
It bought houses on Bay Street and Bellamy Curve in Beaufort and tore them down to open up river views. It also played a role in the preservation of Auldbrass Plantation in Yemassee, designed by the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
In 1991, volunteer Cindy Baysden was hired as the first executive director. About the same time, conservation easements changed the nature of land preservation.
Under a conservation easement, a property owner gets a tax write-off in exchange for giving up the land's development rights.
"With that, you have the ability to protect large parcels," said Bluntzer, who took the reins when Baysden retired in 2008.
Beginning in the late 1990s, the trust, through partnerships, helped protect more than 400 acres on Lemon Island, and in 2002, it helped preserve the Bluffton Oyster Factory. Its first protected property on Hilton Head Island came in 2009, an easement on 30 acres of beachfront and sea-turtle nesting ground.
The trust has worked closely with Beaufort County's Rural and Critical Lands program, which protects land from development using money from county bond referendums. Last summer the trust was hired to help manage the county program.
Environmental work remains to be done, Bluntzer said.
"All of our major waterways are impaired," she said. "Two of them are completely closed to any kind of fishing or shellfishing industry."
But as the trust marks its 40th birthday, supporters say there's plenty to celebrate -- majestic Lowcountry scenes protected, green spaces preserved and hearts and minds won over to conservation.
"The biggest thing, I think, that the Open Land Trust has done is raise awareness of the fact that we have to be vigilant to protect the beauty of this area," Baysden said. "You can't just sit still and think that it's going to protect itself."