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7/18/2009 The Post and Courier: Natural Paradise on Edisto now belongs to South Carolinians
By Bo Petersen
EDISTO ISLAND -- The cocoon of live oaks awes visitors on the road to the state's newest nature preserve -- the first hint of just how singular a place Botany Bay Plantation is.
The play of light, shade and massive limbs is strangely familiar: Botany Bay Road has been photographed so often, it's an iconic image of Edisto Island and the Lowcountry. At the road's end is the entrance to a nearly 5,000-acre oceanfront plantation that was willed by its former owner to the people of South Carolina.
The centuries-old farm is a vista of hardwoods and pine stands, crop fields, salt marshes, hummock islands and a maritime forest beach with its own "boneyard" -- a ghost forest of dead trees in the frothy surf.
The spread includes a three-mile motor tour trail past 19th-century brick and tabby structures, 20 more miles of trails for hiking, biking, birding and horseback riding, fishing ponds and a "throw" launch into Osceola Creek for paddle-powered boats.
And now the public can view it all. The Botany Bay Plantation Wildlife Management Area was opened to public access this month.
It's on a tract so compact that a casual hiker or biker with a backpack could roam it in a day and finish off with a dip in the sea. The first state-recorded visitor to Botany Bay, birder Hal Currey of Sullivan's Island, saw or heard 43 species, and wasn't even trying.
If you go
How to get to Botany Bay Plantation Wildlife Management Area:
From U.S. 17 South, take S.C. 174 to Edisto Island. Turn left at Botany Bay Road, 8.5 miles past the McKinley Washington Bridge and just past the Edisto Serpentarium. At the road's end, turn in at the gate to the left. An information kiosk is on the right. The area is open dawn to dark, 7 days a week. Seasonal hunts may affect access. For information, call 953-9300 during business hours or go to www.dnr.sc.gov.
"This place is almost magical," Currey said.
The place is so diverse that the Department of Natural Resources has to manage it simultaneously as a gameland farm, a wildlife forest, a coastal reserve and a cultural and historical keepsake.
"It's breathtaking. It's quintessential Edisto Island, sweeping beauty all along. It's the way the rest of the South Carolina coast was 60 years ago, 70 years ago," said Marian Brailsford, Edisto Island Open Land Trust director.
Dean Harrigal, Natural Resources wildlife biologist, pauses on a trek down the half-mile causeway through salt marsh to the beach island. Behind him twitters a painted bunting — the secretive, blue-headed, red-hued, green-winged bird of the sea islands. In the distance is the dull boom of the surf.
Harrigal is asked to compare the tract with the other premier coastal wildlife areas — the Donnelley Wildlife Management Area where he works, the Santee Coastal Reserve, the Webb Wildlife Center.
"It's another one of the pearls in our necklace," he says. He thinks about it. "It might be the diamond."
It's a big diamond for people looking for outdoors pursuits in urbanizing Charleston, a chance to wander through the rural coastal environment and its history, right at the edge of the suburbs. It's a contrast and a complement to the hugely popular Edisto Beach State Park just down the shoreline.
DNR cuts a fine line on its missions of protecting natural resources and providing for people to enjoy them. At Botany Bay that line will be very fine indeed.
At the heart of this pearl are historical and cultural showpieces to be preserved, such as an intact icehouse and gardener's shed, and the walls of a stable from the Bleak Hall plantation, as well as the ruins of the Sea Cloud plantation. They date to the Civil War era or before.
In a nook of backwoods on one of the trails, there's a brick cylinder "beehive" seep well, built to act like a catch basin at the bottom of a small run that might once have been an artesian seep of groundwater. It was very likely built by slaves.
The focus of the plantation's management will be "wildlife and the people who come to enjoy that ecosystem," in the words of Natural Resources marine biologist Phil Maier. Management will be tight.
The historical structures are being fenced off. Staff live on the site, police will patrol it and a cadre of volunteers is already emerging to keep more eyes on it. Hunting will be permit-managed by game seasons, times and locations, a lot like it is with the Donnelley wildlife area farther south. Dogs must be leashed and are not allowed on the beach island or its causeway.
To a large extent, the focus will be on children's programs, working with the nearby Edisto Interpretive Center. The 50-acre saltwater Jason's Lake will be catch-and-release, and only open to adults with children. The half-mile trek to the salt-pruned maritime forest island opens onto a beach with thick drifts of shells. But shelling will be limited to one quart, by 17-year-olds or younger, to keep the sands from getting picked clean.
Wild turkeys and deer haunt the woods. Lunker red drum are in the waters. Gators slide across the causeways between marshes. Pelicans glide in swarms over the beach to the nearby Deveaux Bank rookery. Oyster and hard clam shells on the ocean beach tell the story that the beach was once a hammock island in the estuary. In season, loggerhead turtles nest in the sands.
At Botany Bay, "it's not any one thing. It's the mixture of environments, the intense mix of natural and cultural resources right here together," Maier said.
"This is a real treasure," Brailsford said in a separate interview. "We're counting on Natural Resources to protect it for South Carolina's future."