By Jefferson Weaver, The News Reporter
On a hot August morning recently, Doug Smith cast a Beetlespin toward a ripple under the Crusoe Bridge. The lure flashed in the brown water, where moments before a fish had swirled.
“From the start,” he said, “we wanted to make sure this was like this forever.”
Smith and his wife Jimmi, along with the Waters of Waccamaw project of the Coastal Land Trust, took steps last week to protect more than 3,000 acres of wetlands, forests and swamps from logging and development. The Smiths signed a conservation easement for 34 acres adjacent to their home and the Crusoe bridge, while the Coastal Land Trust worked with its partner organizations, including the Nature Conservancy, to purchase a section of riverfront and woodlands stretching from the Smith property to the Columbus-Brunswick county line.
Around 1,000 acres of the property was transferred to the Wildlife Resources Commission for public game lands. That property will become a managed forest as well as public hunting grounds, with a long-term goal of returning the forest to its original state. The Coastal Land Trust will manage the remaining 2,000 acres as a preserve.
The project was a joint effort of more than a dozen organizations, working with Campbell Global of Oregon. The firm manages and owns multiple tracts across the country, including a number of large properties in Columbus County.
The property was purchased using grant money as well as the settlement from the Freedman Farms pollution case from 2012. The corporate farm was found guilty of illegally releasing untreated hog waste from a Western Prong operation into the headwaters of the Waccamaw River. The settlement has also been used to help fund expansion of Lake Waccamaw State Park.
“We are grateful for the support and interest of local and state leaders during the last two years, as the Coastal Land Trust carried out the work necessary to make this conservation project a reality,” said Janice Allen, deputy director of the Coastal Land Trust. “We couldn’t be more pleased that it is completed at last.”
Restoration of the forest will benefit many species of wildlife such as white-tailed deer, wild turkey, wood stork, and Swainson’s warbler. The waters of the Waccamaw and wetlands on the tract also support many rare plant and animal species, Allen said, including several fish, mussels, and snails only found in the Waccamaw River system.
As development has spread from Brunswick County and upstate South Carolina, Smith said, more and more forests are being harvested and turned into residential developments.
“You can see the beauty of these places and understand why someone wants to live here,” he said.
The newly preserved land will serve a more mundane purpose than just preserving nature and providing additional public hunting grounds, Smith said. The lowland cypress forest provides overwash areas for floodwaters heading downstream. When the river floods, it spreads across the wide, flat areas, providing nutrients for the soil as well as slowing the flow rate downstream, preventing worse flooding along the lower Waccamaw, where development is more common than in the pine, cypress and Atlantic juniper woods of Crusoe.
Some of the cypress trees in the preserved tracts are hundreds, if not thousands of years old, Smith said. The “juniper line” – the extent of the natural range of the Atlantic white cedar, commonly called juniper – extends through the middle of the tract. Carnivorous plants, rare flowers, and at least three varieties of Carolina bay trees flourish in the flood-prone forest land.
The ancient cypress trees along the Waccamaw, however, draw the most interest from scientists and historians to river tourists in kayaks and canoes. Those trees are also highly sought after by timber harvesters, but the cypress in the Smith and Campbell tracts will not end their days in sawmills or pulpwood plants.
“We will never see trees close to this in our lifetimes,” he said. “There may not be trees like those ever again. That’s why they need to be preserved, and why this river is so important.”
“The Waccamaw is special in more ways than you can count,” Allen said. “It’s not just that the Waccamaw River system contains some of the most beautiful and extensive cypress swamps and blackwater bottomland hardwood forests in the state. It›s truly unique; due to its rare water chemistry and geology, many of the plants and animals that flourish in the Waccamaw are found nowhere else on Earth.”
Smith said the acquisition by the trust not only protects the beauty of the river, but could provide an economic engine for the area.
“Nature tourism is a really big thing,” he said. “We have an incredible resource here – there’s room for outfitters and guided hunts, fishing trips, you name it.
“There are people who love to hunt, but don’t have a place to go, and no time to maintain it if they did,” he said. “We have deer, bear, wild hogs, small game and waterfowl down here, and plenty of them. There are plenty of choice places to hunt, too.”
The Smiths have a river guide business that Doug said he hopes to expand using riverfront property surrounded by the protected area.
“I hope someday to have kayak and canoe classes, to help people learn how to paddle, then take them out on the river or let them go themselves,” he said. “There is so much natural beauty and history here that needs to be preserved. I think people would flock here if there was a museum featuring Crusoe—so much of the culture here is disappearing. The way of life is disappearing.”
A museum focusing on the culture of Crusoe, from its outdoors heritage to traditional dugout canoe construction, would be a perfect fit for a river paddling business or hunting and fishing outfitters.
“People need jobs, so their communities don’t die,” Smith said. “Every time someone leaves Columbus County or a place like Crusoe, our community loses. People want to do well, and have good paying jobs, and they can’t do that by staying home any more. I’d like to see this resource being used to create jobs in our community, so people don’t have to leave the land of their parents and grandparents to make a living.”
As a river otter chased the fish Smith had been tempting a few minutes before, the Army veteran and retired International Paper employee said he sometimes receives “a letter a month” from timber harvesters wanting access to his land now under conservation easement.
“I do not want to see this place look like the White Marsh heading into Whiteville,” he said, referring to a controversial clearcutting project on Jefferson Street. “The wildlife that would be displaced – just the number of owls alone would amaze you. Never mind the other species, the endangered plants, the game animals.
“As long as I have my way about it, at least this section will be preserved. We need more protection for places like these.”