A collaborative effort among three conservation organizations will ensure 100-plus acres of scenic marshland along the Ashley River will forever be protected and the area’s natural ecosystem restored.

Lowcountry Land Trust recently secured ownership of a conservation easement on the 104-acre site located behind Drayton Hall, a historic 18th-century plantation home that boasts significance as both a national historic landmark and historic trust site.

The easement is a deed restriction that requires an organization “hold” it. While the effort to secure the recent easement included work also from Drayton Hall Preservation Trust and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Lowcountry Land Trust was given the official responsibility to annually monitor the easement “to make sure that they are doing what they agreed to,” said Jennifer Howard, spokesperson for the Land Trust.

According to Carter C. Hudgins, president and CEO of Drayton Hall Preservation Trust, the groups’ collective efforts “will safeguard important viewsheds, enhance the natural surroundings of Drayton Hall and preserve the cultural character of the Lowcountry.”

Restoration work is scheduled to start early next year, once project permits are secured. Summerville-based environmental firm Sabine and Waters Inc. will pierce the marsh’s dyke in multiple places and use herbicide on an invasive plant species known as phragmites australis. According to conservationists, by preventing further spread of phragmites, the marsh—which includes 4,600 feet of river frontage—will become a more favorable habitat for native plants and grasses to thrive.

George McDaniel, seasoned Ashley River conservationist and director emeritus for Dratyon Hall, likened the plant species to kudzu, minus the vine. Characterizing it as a “tall, invasive aquatic weed,” he explained the plant has harmful effects on marshland and wildlife.

“Birds don’t much care for it, and it thrives in water that’s low in oxygen and doesn’t have much flow,” he said.

Conservation easement near Drayton Hall to help restore ecosystem along Ashley River

George McDaniel in 2015.

And bird species—waterfowl in particular—were the reason behind the initial creation of the marsh in the 1940s, according to conservationists.

“Birds depend on a healthy marsh,” McDaniel said.

He pointed to trash and other litter stemming from the nearby Charleston airport and busy roadways as contributing to the river’s current unhealthy state and sediment buildup.

“When (someone throws) something out the window of their car, it’s very likely going to end up in the river,” McDaniel said. “It doesn’t go away; it goes down into a ditch and into a creek (and then) into rivers.”

But birds aren’t the only class of animals potentially impacted by a polluted marsh. Sick marine life—or its absence—can also negatively affect the local seafood market.

“The marshes are the nursery for marine life,” McDaniel said. “When you go to the market to buy fresh seafood, a lot of those crabs grew up in the marsh. This (restoration) will create habitat for seafood.”

Preserving Lowcountry ‘history and heritage’

The National Trust gained the marshland in the 1990s—McDaniel, employed by the National Trust at the time, an instrumental part of the campaign to purchase the land in a “bargain sale” from a North Charleston developer. He said he led the effort that raised $625,000 and kept the land from turning into condos.

Conservation easement near Drayton Hall to help restore ecosystem along Ashley River

A photo of the marsh from the 1990s. The iconic photo was produced using photoshop, an innovative concept at the time, according to George McDaniel, instrumental in securing the marsh purchase and also current director emeritus for Drayton Hall. He said the site was one of the first historic places in the nation to utilize a photo-shopped image for public use.

While preserving land might ensure zero opportunity for future development, such initiatives aren’t necessarily an economic loss; in fact, McDaniel said preservation efforts are far from that label and can actually benefit an entire community, not just the conservation community.

“There can be economic wins with conservation,” he said. “We often think of conservation as being controversial, and you’re getting something for nothing.”

Over the last decade, the National Trust has been partnering with environmental agencies at the national and state level to restore the marsh. The organization participated in a settlement connected to a claim against Koppers Company/Beazer East, Inc. According to conservation groups, it was the settlement that gave the National Trust the opportunity to place an easement on the marsh and return it to its natural habitat.

“Successful preservation of the Ashley River Historic District takes many tools and by deploying this innovative approach to environmental mitigation, we can permanently protect the marsh land along the river—a key aspect of the historic district,” said Paul Edmondson, interim president and CEO of the National Trust, in a statement.

Preservation also entails a “choice,” according to McDaniel.

“Do you want this feature or do you want that?” he said.

And with conservation groups’ choice to preserve the recent marsh tract, locals and visitors alike who flock in the future to the area of the river near Drayton Hall can be guaranteed an unadulterated view of the outdoors.

“Preservation is often more about what you don’t see then what you do see,” McDaniel said. “What you don’t see there are condominiums…or parking lots. You’re not hearing boom boxes on balconies; you’re looking at nature, and so for our visitors to Drayton Hall that’s so important—to go down to the river and be able to think about the history and heritage of the Lowcountry. They’re not looking in someone’s backyard.”

The recent preservation effort is one conservationists hope will spark additional, similar efforts—along the river and beyond—to allow natural habitats to continuing flourishing in the midst of ongoing regional development.

“We think that conservation of the river and the lands in this region are worth it,” McDaniel said. “We wish we had more.”

Ashley Demosthenes, CEO and president of Lowcountry Land Trust, agreed.

“Mitigating flooding, protecting our local water quality and maintaining our historic places are part of the daily dialogue in the Lowcountry,” she said in a statement. “We are excited to be a part of a project that not only provides permanent land protection, but also leverages the expertise of partners in a way that may inspire other landowners to consideration restoration and protection of their properties.”

I've been a newspaper reporter for 8 yrs, covering everything from the President's arrival on Air Force One to sports, murder trials, a cat stuck in a wall, death of a UFO expert & meeting Nick Jonas (who disappointingly snubbed me). Send me story ideas!