- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

WHITE HALL, S.C. (AP) - Amid sprawling development from Charleston and Hilton Head Island, a group of landowners, companies, nonprofits and government agencies set out 25 years ago to conserve a quiet corner of South Carolina.

Their success story is the ACE Basin - an area the Nature Conservancy has called one of the world’s last great places - and which gets its name from its three main rivers.

The basin drained by the Ashepoo, Combahee and South Edisto rivers comprises 1 million acres of landscape including timberland, swamp and farmland as well as barrier islands and beaches.

“In 1989 the expectation was that patterns of Hilton Head and Kiawah Island and Myrtle Beach with suburban sprawl was just going to continue,” said Charles Lane, the first chairman of the ACE Basin Task Force.

Because of the effort, which includes working with property owners to limit development through conservation easements, the basin looks much as it did 250 years ago. The area has large waterfront plantation homes, some dating to the days of the colonial rice culture, many of which are now used as hunting lodges.

There are also small farms, cabins and mobile homes scattered along the dirt roads winding through the basin intersected by The Ace Basin Parkway, U.S. 17, a gently curving four-lane blacktop where one can drive for miles seeing only forest, small homes and marsh vistas.

The basin is also home to state wildlife management areas, the ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge and the National Estuarine Research Reserve.

“A lot of it was luck,” said Lane, who five years ago began a second term as head of the task force. “Everybody involved in the project was a novice - none of us were professional conservationists. But we did a few things really smartly in retrospect.”

He said there was no attempt to make the entire basin a park but to keep properties on the local tax rolls and maintain the hunting, fishing, forestry and farming that have gone on for centuries.

“The other thing that helped is that the leadership was all local people and there weren’t a bunch of outsiders coming in and saying this is how it should be saved,” he added.

More than 150 property owners have now placed conservation easements on their land in which they agree to forever limit development. In return for doing so they generally receive tax credits. The first easement in the basin was placed by media mogul Ted Turner on his former Hope Plantation property back in the 1980s, Lane said.

Now, with the ACE Basin established, perhaps the biggest threat to the region is invasive animal and plant species, said Travis Folk, a wildlife biologist with Folk Land Management. But that doesn’t mean development is not a concern.

“There aren’t any threats now but that doesn’t mean there can’t be,” he said. “The way I look at it is we may never win the war but we can’t afford to lose a battle.”

Dean Harrigal, a state wildlife biologist said the state’s Botany Bay Wildlife Management Area, near the popular beach town of Edisto Beach, gets about 50,000 visitors a year although the rest of the basin sees only about 10,000, he said.

People come to do everything from watch birds to take photos to bicycle.

“It’s the land, it’s the wetlands, it’s the ocean and one of the best things is what you don’t see - that’s a lot of people,” Harrigal said.

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