Easements prove valuable in efforts to protect land

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Practically no one had heard of conservation easements 15 years ago when Charleston native Herbert J. Butler began trying to protect his hundreds of acres of former rice fields.

Today, with perpetual easements on more than 1,000 acres of his Georgetown-area property, Butler finds more and more landowners joining the movement to ensure their natural land will never be developed.

The movement was slow to take off, but once it started growing it started a domino effect, Butler said. “It is becoming more and more popular because more and more land is being protected.”

Now when someone writes an easement dedicating his land - for wildlife management, fishing, hunting, timber and other traditional uses - the acreage often extends or fills a gap in protected areas.

Instead of 100 acres here and 50 there, groups like Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy talk about landscape-scale protection that ensures broad sweeps of forest and wetlands that will never be developed.

That means water quality and wildlife - not to mention scenic beauty and human tranquility - benefit much more.Landowners decide what conservation easement will allow and prohibit on their private property, which remains in their hands to pass on or sell. The owner and his heirs receive a tax break and peace of mind, knowing the land is forever conserved and legally bound in an easement that a conservation group will enforce.

“In the last 15 years,” said Butler, longtime president of the Historic Ricefields Association, “there has been a tremendous change in the thinking of private property owners on the value of preserving these pristine properties.”

He has seen several such properties transformed into resorts. “If we are not careful, that is the way all the land is going to go,” he said.

Protection, not development, will provide the greatest ultimate value, Butler is convinced, and property values have increased in South Carolina’s focus areas. In the ACE Basin south of Charleston, and the Santee and Winyah Bay focus areas, landowners have joined forces with conservation groups and wildlife agencies to save land for nature and link isolated protected sites into larger expanses.

Efforts so far have forever blocked development on more than 250,000 acres of the Santee focus area, 156,000 acres of the ACE Basin and more than 100,000 acres of the Winyah Bay focus area.

“South Carolina, especially east of (Interstate) 95, is probably the most active area for voluntary conservation easements in the Eastern United States. The amount of protected property, which is landowner driven, is unmatched anywhere except maybe in Wyoming or Montana,” said Edwin Cooper, manager of land protection at the Ducks Unlimited South Atlantic Field Office in Charleston.

“The first Ducks Unlimited conservation easement was in South Carolina, and it proved to be a very effective tool in protecting high quality habitat,” said Cooper, who describes easements as living wills for property. “Now our experience here is being adopted in habitats across the nation.”

This year his office, which works from the Florida Keys to the southern Virginia border, helped landowners complete 13 conservation easements, 11 of them in this state, on 4,900 acres. That compares to 55 easements in the last 10 years.

Butler agrees. “South Carolina is far ahead of any other state. We are now being used as a model.”

Folks from elsewhere say that the Oaks Plantation is like something out of National Geographic, noted Butler, who recently signed a 208-acre conservation easement on the Santee River property that he manages for waterfowl and other wildlife.

The new easement, donated to Ducks Unlimited, creates an 867-acre sweep by linking easements he had given on Crow Hill and Commander Island.

“People understand conservation easements better now and realize in most instances that they are good, excellent,” said Sam Hiott, executive vice president of the Bank of South Carolina and co-owner of Bear Island Club, a waterfowl hunt club in the ACE Basin.

About seven years ago, Hiott began talking about easements with five fellow club owners. He said he discussed protecting their land for the best possible use, wildlife. He mentioned taxes; last June 1 a new state tax benefit joined the federal tax break.

In addition, county taxes peg easement land as agricultural, ensuring a lower annual bill. That can help heirs hold onto family property that otherwise might become too valuable and expensive, Butler said.

As the ACE Basin phenomenon grew, Hiott noticed, “There was a white spot that needed filling in.”

The 505-acre Bear Island Club on the Edisto River lies between the already protected Bear Island Wildlife Management Area (more than 12,000 acres of state land) and Pon Pon Plantation (more than 3,000 acres under conservation easement), while Nature Conservancy easements ensure the future of Willtown Bluff Plantation right across the river and Ted Turner’s Hope Plantation next to Pon Pon.

The six club owners unanimously agreed to give Ducks Unlimited a conservation easement on their land, 75 percent of which is controlled wetlands managed primarily for waterfowl. Bald eagles, endangered wood storks, egrets, ibises and what Hiott describes as an abundance of wildlife also benefit from the management.

In the Winyah Bay focus area, owners recently added to their easements on Weymouth and Nightingale plantations and wrote four new easements, in part providing a permanent and unbroken band of protection on the Pee Dee River from the outfall of the Jericho to the confluence with the Black River.

Blocks of easements along the Pee Dee and other rivers provide wildlife habitat, protect waterfowl migratory corridors, preserve scenic vistas and improve water quality by controlling floods and sedimentation, Cooper said.

“You can go up the Edisto River and know your children will be looking at it. You’ll never have to say how it used to be,” said Cooper.

“It’s a way of protecting the past,” said Butler. “It has to do with a love of where we come from. It’s not just for self, but for family and others.”