Al Segars is like a lot of us. He moved to the South Carolina Lowcountry because he loved the rivers and creeks and marshes and egrets and dolphin and forests.
But things were different for Segars when he arrived in Beaufort County in 1996 with his wife, Mary, and their three young boys.
He came to make conservation and appreciation of our fragile environment his life’s work.
And for 19 years, until his retirement on Oct. 31, Segars poured his soul into it as an employee of the state Department of Natural Resources, serving as a veterinarian and stewardship coordinator for the ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve.
He was the one called when manatees were killed. He monitored shorebirds, studied fisheries, worked on water contaminates, and documented juvenile loggerhead turtles who left our shores like little waddling postage stamps and returned almost a decade later after circumnavigating the Atlantic Ocean.
He was a key to the Beaufort barrier islands being named national and global Important Bird Areas by Audubon.
And he taught and shared and mentored, speaking to countless groups locally, or entertaining college students from Chicago getting their first glimpse of nature at our own Bennetts Point.
Now he’s 65. The boys are grown. Mary has become an artist, whose eye has helped him see new things in nature. They’ve moved from Lady’s Island to St. Helena Island, and he hopes to continue his conservation work in some capacity in the Lowcountry.
“I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he said, “to be offered this opportunity by DNR to meet the people I’ve met and go to the places I’ve been able to go.”
When I asked him what we ordinary citizens can do to protect the environment that drew so many here, he said, “It all comes down to individual responsibility.”
Here are 15 ways Segars says each of us can act responsibly:
▪ Understand how special the Port Royal Sound estuary system and the ACE Basin are. We’re not in Kansas anymore.
▪ Pay the price of living in a special place. It may be dollars for better storm drainage, or the so-called inconvenience of yielding the right of way to migrating birds. “Right now, we’re blessed with a fairly healthy eco-system,” Segars said. “But much more growth is coming. What we do from here on out is the question.”
▪ Get dirty. Get out into nature. “You need to get dirty and muddy,” Segars said. The percentage of people doing this is small, and shrinking, especially among kids. Plenty of opportunities are offered by the Coastal Discovery Museum, the Port Royal Sound Foundation and its Maritime Center, DNR, state parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and private environmental and eco-tourism groups.
▪ Become a Master Naturalist. This program was started here by the late Jack Keener when he was a Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service agent in Beaufort, and is now run by the Lowcountry Institute at Spring Island. It has trained more than 1,000 naturalists who then share their expertise.
▪ Go above and beyond. See that your homeowners’ association maintains its stormwater retention ponds so they function as promised. Spend more on stormwater management than you might have to. “Development is coming, and that’s OK,” Segars said. “But are we willing to do it right on the front end rather than come in and try to fix it? It’s not going to be cheap. It’s not going to be the lowest bidder. But that’s the question. That’s our responsibility as residents today.”
▪ See the big picture. Think beyond your own wants and needs to accommodate wildlife.
▪ Don’t try to be friends with wildlife. Don’t feed dolphins, alligators or raccoons. Don’t water the manatees. As a rule, leave wildlife alone. Birdfeeders are OK. But other interaction often comes with unintended consequences. No one wants to harm a manatee, but that’s what happens when you entice it into a marina, where it could be killed or injured by boat propellers.
▪ Consider the unintended consequences of releasing feral cats back into the wild. They kill many birds, and that needs to be a part of the discussion on handling feral cats.
▪ Don’t let your dogs chase birds on the beach. Migrating birds are on a tight schedule for what may be a 20,000-mile trip from South America to the Arctic and back. They may have to double their weight in a short stop here. Dogs stop that process. As there are fewer places for migrating birds to rest peacefully, we need to think about banning dogs from certain beaches at certain times, and to establish dog-friendly zones and bird-friendly zones.
▪ Save some green space. Demand that homeowners’ associations and developers reserve open spaces for wildlife in all developments.
▪ Pick up trash from the roadside. This can keep it from getting into the ocean and harming wildlife. “Our species should be ashamed of itself for the trash we’re putting in the ocean,” Segars said.
▪ Clean up at boat landings.
▪ Keep it natural. Manicured lawns and golf courses can’t replace the thatch and ground cover birds need. Get your soil tested before you fertilize the lawn to see whether you need to do it at all.
▪ Take a kid outdoors. It’s hard to get future generations to fight for nature when they don’t know nature, and they don’t know it until they get out in it.
▪ Educate yourself. Then educate your friends and neighbors that the Lowcountry is not at all like what you left behind to come here, and you have to treat it differently.