Despite successes, conservation efforts remain critical to protecting Upstate’s natural beauty

GREENVILLE JOURNAL

The mountains and foothills of northwestern South Carolina are a place of singular beauty and abundant natural resources, causing people to flock here for centuries. That growth has exploded exponentially in recent decades and, if left unchecked, it has the potential to destroy the very things that drew people here in the first place.

This is the message the network of conservation groups, concerned citizens and businesses that are doing the work of preserving the Upstate’s beauty want people to know. Despite the challenges, the good news is anyone can be part of the work to ensure that beauty is protected and preserved for future generations.

Growth is inevitable, blight is not

At the heart of this environmental concern is a sobering reality: Greenville is expected to gain more than 200,000 new residents by 2040.

Those people have to go somewhere. But according to Doug Harper, chairman of Greenville-based Harper General Contractorsone of the Southeast’s largest construction firms, developers and policymakers can guide that growth into areas that make sense and have the least impact on the region’s green spaces.

“I definitely feel that it’s a critical issue for the present and future of our county and the Upstate as a whole,” Harper says.

As head of a major construction firm and a trustee of Naturaland Trust, one of the state’s two oldest conservation trusts, Harper has a keen interest in protecting the state’s natural resources. He explains that, contrary to what some business leaders believe, conservation is actually a huge economic driver and not a roadblock to growth.

He adds the conservation work in the past decades by visionaries like Greenville’s Tommy Wychewho founded Naturaland Trust In 1973, has preserved huge tracts of land for public enjoyment that underpin the region’s quality of life and draws so many to move here.

While balancing growth with preserving natural resources has always been a challenge, the accelerating pace of that growth presents new challenges, according to Naturaland Trust Executive Director Mac Stone.

“We always feel that we’re in a race against the clock,” Stone says.

One recent development that has helped despite the population growth — or possibly because of it — is an increased public awareness of the value of natural spaces, driven in large part by pandemic restrictions. Stone says visits to local and state parks have exploded in the past two years as people sought respite from long periods of isolation.

He adds that people view such spaces as more than just amenities that are nice to have.

“These are necessities,” he says. “These are as much necessities as the jobs that people have because these are the things that keep us feeling well, keep us feeling anchored and keep us feeling a sense of pride and uniqueness for where we live.”

Conservation as priority

A significant recent development, which has arguably arrived with little fanfare, is the creation of the Greenville County Historic and Natural Resources Trust.

Created in 2020 by Greenville County Council, which appropriated $2 million over its first two years, the trust is an important milestone not only for the conservation projects it is funding but for the way it signals the county’s commitment to protect the area’s historic and natural resources .

Board Chairman Carlton Owens says the county demonstrating it has skin in the game is a critical component of securing state and federal protection funding. Historically, the county has been fortunate to attract significant investments from the SC Conservation BankOwens says.

By mid-September, the trust will have found its first five projects securing about 420 acres and one historic property.

“We’re off to a good start,” he says. “But it’s critical if we want to attract those state and federal match dollars… that we show local commitment, and that’s what the trust is doing.”

Conserving more than mountains

Although preserving the region’s wild spaces remains important, preserving farm land and waterways is equally vital, according to Upstate Forever Executive Director Andrea Cooper.

In fact, waterways and rural farm land are facing some of the most acute threats from growth as development pushes out from Greenville’s urban core. While Upstate Forever works with conservation partners across the region to advocate for land use policies and regulations that prioritize preservation of green spaces, they also offer a tool that empowers landowners to be more proactive in protecting their own land: conservation easements.

Those conservation easements are at the heart of the organization’s mission, according to Scott Park, Upstate Forever’s Glenn Hilliard Director of Land Conservation.

“With a voluntary conservation easement in place, property owners who own land with important natural resources can permanently protect the land they love while they continue to own and manage it for traditional uses,” Park says.

Such an approach has led to the protection of the 113-acre Calico Vineyard in Greenville County. Thanks in part to funding from Greenville Women Givingthe SC Conservation Bank and others, Upstate Forever has not only helped preserve the historic family farm in Travelers Rest but also important water resources and crucial habitat.

The Jones Gap expansion will expand the Mountain Bridge Wilderness to thousands of acres of protected land. Pictured here, low clouds move in over the Mountain Bridge Wilderness.

A call to action

While there have been substantial successes over the decades, conservation leaders say now is not the time to become complacent.

“God created a wonderful world for us, and it’s our responsibility to be good stewards,” Harper says.

Continued success will depend on everyone with an interest in preserving the area’s unique beauty remaining committed to the work, according to Stone.

“We’re all in this together,” he says.

A conservation legacy

There’s probably not another name more closely associated with Upstate conservation efforts in the past 50 years than that of Greenville attorney Tommy Wyche — unless it is his son, Brad.

Before his death in 2015, the elder Wyche was a conservation pioneer who founded Naturaland Trust in 1973 as part of a broader effort to preserve vast stretches of South Carolina’s mountains. Such work led to the creation of Table Rock and Caesar’s Head state parks as part of the larger Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area.

Falling in love with the region’s natural beauty during hiking, camping and canoeing trips with his father, Brad Wyche went on to become one of the first eight students to graduate from Princeton University’s newly created conservation studies program in the early 1970s.

Working with his father for decades to preserve South Carolina’s portion of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the younger Wyche broadened his focus and founded Upstate Forever in 1998 to work on conserving more than just the region’s wild spaces.

Through things like voluntary conservation easements, advocating for sound land use policies and educational outreach, Upstate Forever continues the work of the Wyche family began decades ago.

Brad Wyche says he is proud to carry on the work.

“I’ve been really pleased and proud of what Upstate Forever has become,” he says. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

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