Fightingnature's invaders

Conservancyhas never-ending job at Sandy Island

ByChris Dixon

Sunday,November13, 2005

Edition:FINAL, Section: NATION, Page A1


Preservingan island that was once threatened with development is sometimes notas easy as allowing nature to take its course.

The 12,000-acregem that is Sandy Island was at the center of controversy in theearly 1990s, when there was a plan to bridge, log and develop theisland.

Ultimately, theplan was defeated, and Sandy Island became the centerpiece of asuccessful effort that protected about 75,000 to 80,000 acres ofwildlife habitat along the upper Winyah Bay north of Georgetown.

But since theisland's dedication as a nature preserve, its hilly longleaf pine andoak forests, cypress swamps and vast salt marshes have been besiegedby a variety of invaders that have made the mission of theconservation groups charged with putting it into its natural statemore challenging and expensive than they ever imagined.

In the mossyshadow of a canopy of ancient live oaks last week, Furman Longsurveyed the damage from a group of marauding pigs alongside astretch of Sandy Island cypress swamp.

"When we tookover," he said in a smooth drawl, "we didn't think we'd have theinvasive problems. It was something that just developed in the pastfew years. We didn't have hogs, we didn't havecoyotes, we didn't havephragmites, we didn't have water hyacinth."

A director of theGeorgetown County chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the 65-year-oldretired boat dealer speaks from a lifetime spent along the lowerWaccamaw, Pee Dee and Black rivers. Long's work as caretaker of SandyIsland is the sort of assignment any South Carolina outdoorsman wouldkill for.

Four miles wideand seven miles long, Sandy Island's densely forested shores andmysterious sand hills that rise as high as 78 feet sit between theslow moving waters of the Waccamaw and Pee Dee rivers. At theisland's south end, a rustic 200-acre community known as Mount Renais home to a population of roughly 150 blacks who can trace theirlineage directly to the scores of slaves who labored to cultivaterice amid the mosquitoes, alligators and bears. There is no bridge.Residents still reach the mainland, a place they refer to as "theother side," by boat.

Good stewards

Just over adecade ago, Georgetown County timber baron Craig Wall and textilemagnate Roger Milliken Sr. planned to build a bridge to Sandy Islandto log several thousand acres of longleaf pine and oak. While theidea to build a $2 million bridge to cut timber valued at $1.5million was met with considerable skepticism, revelations of plansfor a several-thousand home resort on the island provoked an uproarand galvanized conservationists statewide. Partly as a result, theSandy Island Associates sold their 9,167 acres to The NatureConservancy and state Department of Transportation as part of an $11million wetlands mitigation deal.

On March 8, 1997,just two hours before Craig Wall was laid to rest following hisunexpected death from a heart attack, Sandy Island was formallydedicated as a nature preserve.

Since then,scores of visitors have made the short trip from the Wacca Wache,Hagley or Samworth boat launches to hike, hunt, fish or kayak aroundSandy Island. From water or land, the island's sublime beauty andvaried habitats are breathtaking.

According toFurman Long, when The Nature Conservancy assumed stewardship, habitatpreservation and restoration were the main priorities. This includedconducting controlled burns in areas with dangerously denseunderbrush, identifying red-cockaded woodpecker habitats, figuring away to remove 95 or so broken-down, decaying cars, and dealing withnon-native feral pigs.

In the early1990s, Sandy Island's population of feral pigs went from zero to morethan a thousand. Walking beside a broad swath of churned up soft soilalong a cypress filled marsh, Long identified the damage a group ofonly three or four pigs caused in a day.

"They root allthrough it," he said, "eat young snakes and lizards and turkey nests —any kind of nest that was in there is history. The only way to takethem out is to trap them or to shoot them."

Wild sows canproduce a litter of several offspring every six months, and it cantake as little as six months for a piglet to reach sexual maturity.Their rooting also destroys valuable longleaf pine seedlings.

"We will never beable to get rid of all of the pigs," said Long. "It's justimpossible. We can only keep the population in check."

Dr. Gene Woods, aprofessor of forest wildlife ecology at Clemson University, is theformer forestry biologist at the Hobcaw Barony, a 16,000-acre naturepreserve just east of Georgetown. During the 1980s, Dr. Woods facedenormous problems with feral hogs in Hobcaw's longleaf forests. "Theycan out-compete any animal, and are smarter than almost any animalout there."

He also said thatSandy Island is likely being illegally restocked by poachers, whoplace the pigs in Lowcountry forests for future hunts.


Driving hisbattered pickup truck along one of Sandy Island's dirt roads, Longstopped alongside a decaying AMC Rambler and the tracks of coyotes.Coyotes arrived in the past few years, likely swimming across theriver to avoid hunters and development on the Grand Strand.

The wily caninesand the island's healthy population of bears are likely preying onpigs, Long said, but not in sufficient numbers. More pressing, hesaid, coyotes are preying on smaller animals like fox squirrels,which spend much of their time foraging on the ground and competewith feral pigs for acorns, their food staple.

"Fox squirrelswill run 50 yards before they jump up a tree," he said. "They runthat 50 yards, they're history."

Already driven toextinction are some 95 island automobiles like the old Rambler, whichheld several rusting cans full of paint, four disintegratinglead-acid batteries, and probably oil and gasoline, he said. Removingthem is "going to be an expensive deal. You're going to have to bringdump trucks over here, back hoes and barges," he said. "It'ssomething you've got to do. We can't have a sore spot like that in anature preserve."

A few more milesinto a forest thick with acorn-laden turkey oaks and longleaf pines,Long stopped for trees with nesting red-cockaded woodpeckers, easilynoticeable because their heavily punctured trunks are laden withamber sap. The birds were a focal point of the island's return tonature. In 1994, Roger Banks, the South Carolina project leader forthe United States Fish and Wildlife Service, ultimately recommended adenial of the permit to build the bridge largely on the grounds thatSandy Island Associates were not addressing concerns about the bird'shabitat.

Hiking out to abroad, flat stretch of vegetation, Long pointed out another predator,the water hyacinth. "This was a lake a year or two ago," he said,"and you can see there now, in just a matter of no time at all, itjust annihilated it."

A native of SouthAmerica, the leafy hyacinth grows alongside a problematic, Lowcountrynative called alligator grass. On the far side of the former lake, abrown swath showed a patch where wildlife officials sprayed herbicidelast year. Unfortunately, at more than $100 an acre, aerially sprayedherbicides are a temporary and expensive fix. A cold winter woulddrive the plant back, Long said, but he hasn't seen a truly cold onein years.

Back out on theglassy water of the Black River, Long's boat cruised into a smallinlet, startling a great blue heron that flew alongside the boat for50 or so yards before arcing into the trees. At the end of the inletrose a stand of phragmites, which resembled a wall of nondescriptreeds. These dense, fibrous plants grow rampantly.

Long and otherconservationists seem to agree the phragmites are perhaps thegreatest threat to Lowcountry marshes. "We poisoned it here two yearsago," he said, "and it's coming right back. It'll just become sothick that very little wildlife will use it, and any other goodvegetation — that we consider good in the marsh — will becompletely gone."

"The only way tocontrol it," he added, "is aerial spraying, and aerial spraying isexpensive. If you don't control it, it'll take over the entire marshsystem of the entire Lowcountry."

While he didn'thave exact figures, Matt Nespeca with the Georgetown office of theNature Conservancy said that funding for invasive eradication hadlately come from a number of public and private sources, with theSouth Carolina Department of Natural Resources providing the lion'sshare. "I don't know what we would do," he said, "if they weren'taround to help us do work on Sandy Island, and if we didn't haveFurman working nonstop to control the pigs."

Now retired,Banks said that invasive species like phragmites, coyote, pigs andwater hyacinth were not problems widely foreseen a decade ago whenthe conservationists were working to preserve the island.

"We've now got acommittee in the Winyah Bay task force that deals specifically withinvasive species," he said.

It's pretty scaryto see how fast some of these can take over.

Reach Chris Dixonat 745-5855 or


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