COLUMBIA (AP) — Nearly 4,000 acres of property adjacent to the Francis Marion National Forest are being gifted to the public under a wetlands mitigation plan approved for Boeing’s continued expansion in North Charleston.
The land consists of three separate tracts, with 1,670 acres to be given to the state Department of Natural Resources and 2,225 acres going to the U.S Forest Service within five years. Until then, conservation groups will own, manage and begin restoring the property that’s home to several rare, threatened and endangered species. That includes one of the nation’s largest populations of the endangered red cockaded woodpecker.
Boeing gave the nonprofits $12 million to buy the land earlier this year. Just over half of it either is or will be restored to wetlands.
“It’s a huge gift to the people of the state and country,” Mark Robertson, state director of The Nature Conservancy, said Thursday.
The conservancy and The Open Space Institute jointly bought in April the 2,225 acres of previously family-owned property located within the forest’s boundaries near Awendaw. It’s actually two separate tracts of Fairlawn Plantation, which Charleston County planned to buy and preserve in 2012 in a deal that fell through.
“We are thrilled with this whole project,” Robertson said. “We’re the middle man. ... By the time we transfer the property, it should be in good condition.”
The Lowcountry Open Land Trust bought, in February, the 1,670 acres in Berkeley County that will become a state heritage preserve. The nonprofit will oversee restoring wetlands that were drained by former owner International Paper, which sold it to a developer a decade ago, said the trust’s conservation director, Ashley Demosthenes.
Last week, the state Budget and Control Board approved the state’s eventual ownership of the land.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the mitigation plan last month, granting Boeing the federal permits it needs to expand on 470 acres beside the Charleston International Airport, which includes 150 acres of wetlands the permits allow to be drained. When that would happen is unclear. The only thing currently planned for the site is a 256,000-square-foot building, set to open in 2016, where the 787 Dreamliners built in North Charleston will be painted, said Boeing spokesman Rob Gross.
Boeing, which applied for the permits last December, asked the conservation groups for help identifying which properties to preserve.
“What we purchased was the most strategic,” Demosthenes said about buying part of a larger tract known as Keystone. “This was an opportunity for us to protect key property in that neighborhood adjacent to other private lands and linked to the national forest.”
Boeing will fund all management costs incurred by the conservation groups, which had no estimate on what that may tally. Restoration efforts include planting native longleaf pine trees to replace the faster-growing loblolly pines used in timber operations. Longleaf pines support a more diverse ecosystem, the nonprofit leaders said.
Maintaining the forest’s indigenous longleaf pines requires controlled burning, which hasn’t been done on Fairlawn, Robertson said. Incorporating those tracts into the national forest both saves money and improves safety. The Forest Service has had to plow a 7-mile dirt road around the property yearly to contain fires. Plowing will drop to 1 mile after the transfer, he said.
If the land had been developed, controlled burns next to homes would not be possible, increasing the danger in a natural fire, he said.
“In the absence of fire, you no longer have a natural forest, and it’s not a good habitat,” he said. “If you don’t burn for decades and decades in a pine forest, you get enormous buildup of natural fuel. Then, when a fire starts, it’s catastrophic.”
The conservation leaders, as well as a Department of Natural Resources director, said Boeing went beyond what was needed to receive the federal permits, though how far beyond is unclear.
“We felt this was an opportunity to have lasting and meaningful impact in our surrounding community,” Gross said. “It protected part of the environment for generations to come.”
Boeing got a deal on the permitted land. The aerospace giant is leasing the 470 acres from the state for $1 a year. The company reached agreement in December with Palmetto Railways, a division of the state Commerce Department, for a 50-year lease of the property, with an option to purchase it in 15 years.
The state bought the land for $49 million, using part of the $120 million in bonds the Legislature approved in its 2013 incentive package for the company’s expansion plans, said Commerce spokeswoman Allison Skipper. The law passed within weeks of Boeing announcing it would invest another $1 billion and create 2,000 additional jobs over eight years in North Charleston.