Audubon South Carolina just reached a significant milestone: 40 years of getting people excited about birds and nature at Francis Beidler Forest. Last weekend, more than three hundred people gathered to celebrate our partnerships, the land ethic we share with many of our neighbors, and the thriving bird-breeding factory we’ve protected at Beidler Forest.
When Beidler opened in 1977, it seemed as remote from Charleston as the backside of the moon. Today, development is on our doorstep. Widening roads, sprouting subdivisions, multiplying industries — that’s what I see now as I drive from Charleston to Beidler.
But once you get to the heart of the forest, it feels like time is standing still. That’s because we’ve added 55 new tracts over the past 40 years, protecting more than 18,000 acres. Each tract has its own rich history involving the family or company that owned it and the threats that were averted through Audubon ownership. Now we’re shooting for 20,000 acres — a critical threshold needed to ensure genetic viability for the 42 bird species that depend on this swamp for nesting habitat.
More than Land
Yet the crowds at the anniversary celebration showed that Beidler is about more than trees and acres. Our boardwalk hosts 4,000 South Carolina students each year. Many who show up have never been in a swamp, let alone an ancient swamp more than 1,000 years old. We often watch faces full of fear and trepidation soften into wonder and appreciation. Beidler transforms lives, every day.
The 40th anniversary was also a chance to reflect on our friendships and partnerships. Other nonprofits and federal, state, and local governments have helped us transform a single 3,415-acre parcel into a landscape-scale conservation project that protects not just Audubon’s 18,000 acres, but also 25,000 acres owned by neighbors. Together, we’ve protected 30 miles of a 34-mile floodplain, forever.
Which is a gift to the community and to the state. After the October 2015 flood and Hurricane Matthew, we could literally kayak down our boardwalk, which usually stands six feet above the water. The swamp was flooded for months after both events, storing tons of water and preventing major downstream flooding.
Celebrating Our Partnerships
So here’s how we celebrated the partnerships we prize so dearly. Mark Robertson, Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), was our keynote speaker, reminding us that the protection of Beidler Forest was TNC’s very first project in South Carolina. We also recognized Dana Beach, Executive Director of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, for his leadership in preventing a noisy, polluting stock-car racetrack from springing up right next to Beidler.
Defeating the racetrack was a defining moment in Beidler’s history. Dana and his talented staff mobilized thousands of people to stand up for birds and the habitats they need. This victory demonstrates the power that iconic landscapes have in our lives, and how effective our voices can be when we speak out on behalf of both natural and human communities.
Celebrating Our Leaders
Finally, we took the opportunity to celebrate Norm Brunswig, former Executive Director of Audubon South Carolina. Thanks to Norm’s visionary leadership and infectious optimism, we can all enjoy Beidler Forest today. Norm has been a mentor and friend to me for 25 years, and I still think of him every single time I set foot on the boardwalk.
For many, the highlight of the celebration was hearing from Drew Lanham, a Clemson professor and the recently-elected Board Chair of Audubon South Carolina. I’ll close with Drew’s words, hoping that you can hear both the flame of his commitment, and the tenderness of his love for all that we hold dear:
“Conservation is the act of caring intensely enough for something to save some of it for someone else for later. That intense caring selflessness is love. It is love for land. It is love for the birds and other wild things the land nurtures. It is a love for one another and the human condition that is connected to the soil, water, air and other natural resources that nature provides. Conservation is all about connections. It is about connecting [our] intense care to intentional action [so that we can] stem the tide of climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, and other challenges that should unite us across the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and even political party.”