Welcome to the September edition of our South Coast newsletter!
Recent weeks here in the Lowcountry have heralded the fall with dipping temperatures, migrating critters, and blustery winds. I hope you’ve been treating yourself with long hours outdoors, enjoying our annual transition to winter.
Please share this newsletter with your friends, family, and colleagues. I welcome your thoughts on how we can work together to enhance conservation on the South Coast. You can reach me at [email protected] or (843) 522-1800.
South Coast Wild Things
Gopher tortoise photograph by Jake Zadik
Take a walk through Tillman Sand Ridge Heritage Preserve in Jasper County and you’ll notice the landscape is riddled with holes with mounds of dirt next to them. A newcomer to the area might notice the mounds of dirt and think the Southeastern United States is plagued with massive ant colonies. But what’s really behind, or rather below, the pockmarked earth is our area’s only tortoise species—the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus).
These turtles, roughly the size of a basketball, used to inhabit the entire coastal plain of South Carolina. But as humans moved in and converted sandy pine savannahs into neighborhoods, the gopher tortoises became few and far between. Now they’re found only in isolated patches of extant pine savannahs and on private and protected lands.
It’s hard to imagine how a slow-moving critter like the gopher tortoise could thrive in ecosystems subject to regular wildfires. You would think one must be quick to escape swiftly moving flames! While birds might take flight and deer might gallop across the forest floor, gopher tortoises set their sights down into their burrows to find shelter from a blaze. Their burrows stretch into the sandy soils up to ten feet deep and sometimes over forty feet long. It is there that they find respite from infernos, and they aren’t alone. Gopher tortoise burrows have been found to host a whopping 360 different species of wildfire refugees, including ground dwelling birds, snakes, and foxes!
The gopher tortoise’s propensity for hosting house guests is one of the reasons they are considered a keystone species—that is, a species an ecosystem heavily relies on for success. When gopher tortoises dig holes, they’re fostering ecosystem stability. And for that reason, we must ensure these incredible creatures continue to call the Lowcountry home.
The Conservation League in the South Coast
Unfortunately, not all holes benefit a habitat or ecosystem. For decades, the Lowcountry has been experiencing a rapid rate of development, putting pressure on our urban and suburban areas. But our rural areas have not come out unscathed. Low-lying properties are increasingly being filled with sand and dirt to shore them up so they can accommodate residential and commercial buildings. That sand and dirt is being dug from mines in our rural areas, scarring them with gaping holes.
These mines have become prevalent in our state’s sandy coastal plain, including in Colleton, Jasper, Hampton, Beaufort, Charleston, Dorchester, and other counties. And they are harming natural habitats for animals and disrupting human communities. The Conservation League has been fighting alongside many communities to oppose destructive mines, but due to an outdated state mining act and growing demand for dirt fill to support sprawling development, these fights are difficult to win.
But we did have a big win recently on Daufuskie Island, thanks to community and other supporters working together. Last week, Beaufort County’s Zoning Board of Appeals denied a special use application that would have allowed a mine on Daufuskie in an area surrounded by residential neighborhoods and near cultural sites, like the Mary Field Cemetery and Oyster Union Hall. Fortunately, our local ordinances and Zoning Board helped defeat the proposed mine, this time.
We are exploring ways to encourage the state to strengthen our mining act to better protect rural communities. But until those changes are made, local governments must lead the charge to protect residents from the impacts of sand mines. We are supporting efforts such as limiting mines in certain areas and offering incentives to construct buildings on stilts. We will keep you updated on our progress to prevent our Lowcountry from becoming riddled with mining holes.
Events, Activities, Meetings
Due to Covid-19, many public meetings are being canceled or are streaming live to protect public health. Please check the status of each meeting prior to attending.
Wild Birds Unlimited Bird Walk – October 10 at 7:45 a.m., Wild Birds Unlimited Store, 2139 Boundary Street, Beaufort. Come bird with me as I lead a bird walk around Crystal Lake Park. Birders will meet at the store and caravan to the park. There is a $5 fee for the walk, and you must register in advance at the store. We can accommodate no more than 10 birders, so register soon. And don’t forget your mask and binoculars.
Beaufort County Council – October 12 and 26 at 6 p.m., Beaufort County Government Robert Smalls Complex, 100 Ribaut Road, Beaufort. Agendas, when posted, can be reviewed here.
Colleton County Council – October 6 at 6 p.m., Council Chambers in the Old Jail Building, 109 Benson Street, Walterboro. Agendas, when posted, can be reviewed here.
Hampton County Council – October 5 and 19 at 6 p.m., Council Chambers, Administration Building, 200 Jackson Ave, East Hampton. Agendas, when posted, can be reviewed here.
Jasper County Council – October 5 and 19 at 6:30 p.m., Jasper County Clementa C. Pinkney Government Building, 358 Third Avenue, Ridgeland. Agendas, when posted, can be reviewed here.