The Obama Administration has big plans for conservation nationwide – and some of those plans will directly benefit South Carolina and its tourism and ecology industries, according to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.
The newly appointed secretary spent her first official visit to South Carolina by land, by air and by sea Wednesday, as she assessed conservation efforts needs and viewed the ever-changing coastline.
It was Jewell’s first stop in a tour pushing for full endowment of a fund set aside for conservation efforts. On Wednesday, she toured more than 20 miles of coastline at the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge near Awendaw, located between Georgetown and Charleston.
Jewell called South Carolina a “microcosm” for the rest of the nation – with strong public and private partnerships critical to conservation efforts – as she addressed a crowd of roughly 75 public, private and nonprofit stakeholders at the Seewee Visitors Center. Jewell viewed the refuge from the air earlier in the day, and took a boat to Bulls Island to tour its boneyard beaches and natural habitats later that afternoon.
Some of the stakeholders present included sweetgrass basket makers of Mount Pleasant, Awendaw town council members, and state and federal public land employees.
“Businesses depend on wildlife refuges,” Jewell said. “People depend on wild refuges and national park and national forests for recreation, for education, for breathing space, for clean water, for clean air, for the culture that makes South Carolina what it is, for the history. You don’t want a South Carolina that has no management, no thought to it. You want a South Carolina that reflects what’s important to you and the community,”
The former businesswoman was appointed by President Barack Obama administration seven months ago. Last month, Jewell announced the administration’s conservation agenda, which includes fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The fund was enacted in 1964, and uses revenues from offshore oil and gas developments to enhance parks and open spaces throughout the nation. Only once in its 49-year history has the fund received full funding from those revenues, according to Jewell’s office. The fund could draw about $900 million annually from conservation mitigation. As is, only a small fraction goes toward conservation.
Congress will have to pass the president’s 2014 budget to allow it to be partially funded. In 2015, President Obama’s budget will call for full funding of the fund.
“Members of this Congress and several years’ previous Congress have tried to zero it out … the president’s budget says enough of that,” Jewell said.
One of the items in the 2014 budget includes a South Carolina project that will connect the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge with the nearby Francis Marion National Forest.
“It’s not just adding land that we have no money to manage. It actually in some cases provides a buffer invasive species, it enables us to manage the land more efficiently and more effectively. And, for all of you, with an eroding habitat that is impacted by climate change, it gives you a chance to maintain the history and the culture and the habitat and the things that are important to South Carolinians through use of these resources,” Jewell said.
Jewell’s highlighted collaborative conservation work being done in the Palmetto State, including the public-private partnership with International Paper of Georgetown, which has purchased and donated easements in the region and in other states recently.
“You’re doing an extraordinary job of working together here,” Jewell said. “We can’t expect the federal government to come in and do all of this … Public-private partnerships are the wave of the future.”
Jewell specifically noted those working to conserve 4,000 acres of longleaf pine habitat.
“Seeing the patchwork of public and private lands that make up this important landscape, it’s clear that collaborative efforts among federal, state, local and private partners have been and will continue to be a key to successful conservation of the longleaf pine forest,” Jewell said in a prepared statement. She added that fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund would allow the Lowcountry’s efforts to preserve the forest to succeed.
Part of the broader America’s Longleaf Initiative, the Charleston-area project would allow U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners to purchase or obtain easements on the 4,000 acres of Cape Romain, Waccamaw, and out-of-state national refuges to support conservation and restoration projects. According to Jewell’s office, the project also will protect cultural lands within the Gullah-Geechee corridor.
The longleaf pine is one of the few materials sweetgrass basket makers rely on for their craft, in addition to sweetgrass, bulrush, and palmetto leaves.
Fully funding the federal conservation coffer in a time of sequestration will not be easy, Jewell said.
“There are some in Congress who would like us to not be any good at what we do because they would like us to basically go away,” Jewell said. But, she added, the economic impact of conservation cannot be underestimated.
She also added that, in a time of climate change, conservation could be critical to helping coastal communities survive rising sea levels. According to Cape Romain staff, sea level has risen one foot over 100 years at the refuge.
“How do we prepare our communities? I would not want to be in some of the houses that I saw (on an aerial tour of South Carolina’s coast) if we had a Hurricane Sandy here,” Jewell said. “What can we learn from our natural infrastructures that we can apply to help communities continue to thrive in an environment of climate change?
“We are seeing changes in our lifetimes. Part of this is addressing it at the source, and the other part of it is adapting,” Jewell said.