The Enchanted Forest
An ancient cypress swamp thrives in the heart of South Carolina's Low Country, spared from encroaching urban sprawl by a sweet-talking forest guardian and visitors' goodwill.
"There's a multi-generational commitment to land here," he points out. "Even conservative politicians are progressive when it comes to easements--they don't want government or nonprofits to own everything. With an easement, they agree there are certain defined limitations on its use--no radio towers, no convenience stores, for instance--but they still own the land and get certain tax breaks."
Neighboring property owners trust Brunswig. Typical is Holcombe Bell, whose farmland abuts the sanctuary. He has placed easements on three tracts totaling 430 acres that include cropland, timberland, and wetlands. He has also persuaded his brother and a first cousin to come aboard, and the latter is trying to convince another cousin to follow. Edsel Taylor, a close neighbor who was born in Four Holes Swamp and is now warden at a local correctional institution, also signed an easement.
"Norm and I share a lifelong love for the outdoors and the ol' swamp," Taylor says. "He has inspired me, talking about the land on our walks in the woods, and I came to realize it was possible to protect this whole watershed. I even helped get the state to grant an easement on some wetlands that are part of the institution's holdings."
The ride hasn't always been smooth. Hurricane Hugo, which devastated parts of South Carolina in 1989, landed a particularly violent blow on Four Holes Swamp. Turbulent winds snapped pines in half and uprooted larger trees, including oaks. The storm smashed long sections of Beidler's boardwalk.
Brunswig and his staff restored the boardwalk, while charting the swamp's recovery. "For years I used the word Hugo every day," remembers Dawson. "It was such a life-changing factor. But Hugo made us realize the forest was changed more by these big storms than by a thousand years of succession."
Brunswig and his sanctuary have come far. "In the long run, if we're not protected from environmental degradation, the whole corridor to our south--including the Ace Basin itself--won't be sustainable," he says. "So now we're perceived as being central to the whole conservation effort down around the coast."
The plants and animals at Beidler Forest evolved in a disaster-prone ecosystem, but the boardwalk can't regenerate itself. Part of it has gone nearly 33 years on lumber that was guaranteed for 20. Now Brunswig and Dawson have set off on a capital fund-raising campaign to rebuild this crossing into a magical land: an intact swamp, where barred owls call, Swainson's warblers sing, yellow-crowned night-herons forage for crayfish--and little golden birds build their nests in cypress knees.
The Francis Beidler Forest is a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance, the first Audubon sanctuary to earn the designation. To learn more or to contribute to Beidler's boardwalk reconstruction effort, visit Audubon South Carolina. For a video about Beidler, click here.