South Carolina Conservation Summary

Many of the first naturalists to encounter the New World disembarked in the colony of South Carolina in the late 1600s, starting a deep-rooted tradition of appreciation of the natural world. Here they encountered the beaches, salt marshes and productive estuaries of coastal Carolina, marshes, meadows and forests, and the mysterious Carolina Bays, a series of oval northwest-southeast oriented depressions that extend through North and South Carolina. They explored the Piedmont’s rivers, fringed with millions of acres of floodplain forests, and the Blue Ridge Mountains’ mesic cove forests, spray cliffs and mountain bogs. Some of the habitats the colonists encountered are still relatively intact; others are in danger of disappearing forever.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats

South Carolina contains a wonderful array of biodiversity. With extensive extant stretches of habitat types that have been destroyed or fragmented in other eastern states, South Carolina has emerged as the remaining stronghold for imperiled species like the wood stork, swallowtail kite and painted bunting. The once-endangered American alligator is abundant here, and South Carolina beaches are a major nesting area for the loggerhead sea turtle. Red-cockaded woodpeckers and gopher tortoises are found in the state, and are important sentinels of the globally imperiled longleaf pine forests. Though just a small sliver in the northwest corner of the state, the Blue Ridge of South Carolina and its foothills are home to an estimated 40 percent of the state’s biodiversity, including the federally endangered bog turtle, the endangered mountain sweet pitcher plant, and the imperiled green salamander.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

Today, many agencies, organizations and private landowners and citizens are carrying South Carolina’s naturalist tradition forward. Many of the state’s best examples of natural communities were protected by fee acquisitions by the U.S. Forest Service and the South Carolina Natural Heritage Program, one of the first of its kind in the United States. The State Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, Conservation Fund, Trust for Public Land, and several local land trusts are actively building landscape-scale conservation areas around these original natural treasures in an attempt to assure that fire, flooding and other natural processes can continue to shape ecological systems as they have in the past. Local land trusts like Lowcountry Open Land Trust, Pee Dee Land Trust, Upper Savannah Land Trust, Naturaland Trust, Upstate Forever and others have made significant contributions to this effort. The effort is far from finished, and state and federal agencies and land trusts are working together in major initiatives to build on past successes.

Threats

Despite the great successes of the past, South Carolina’s biodiversity future is still uncertain. While ranked 40th in land area, South Carolina ranks 10th in the rate of urban growth in the United States, with an estimated 200 acres per day committed to new development. South Carolina is also the southern edge of range for many species, and increased warming from climate change is expected to drive some of these species from the state. Local scientists are also concerned about the changes in moisture regime predicted by regionalized climate change models. South Carolina is expected to see longer droughts punctuated by heavier-than-normal rain events. These will likely cause a “boom and bust” cycle in the state’s streams and rivers, disrupting in-channel habitat and stressing aquatic organisms. This too, along with sea level rise, is likely to disturb sediment and salinity regimes in our estuaries, with unknown consequences for the state’s abundant shellfish and finfish resources. And, spurred by both urbanization and climate change, continued use of controlled burning to mimic natural fire is in question. Many plants, animals and communities will go extinct without the ability of land managers to apply this critical management tool.

South Carolina’s Future

Nonetheless, a significant cadre of conservationists and concerned citizens in South Carolina is ready to meet the challenges of conservation. Partners are working locally, regionally, nationally and internationally across political and institutional boundaries to address South Carolina’s conservation needs on every relevant scale. Through our collective efforts, we will assure that the tradition inspired by the great early naturalists is not lost to our future generations, and that South Carolina’s habitats, plants and animals will continue to inspire, heal and sustain humanity.

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