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Willingham WRP

Plantation's land returns to nature

Charleston developer among those restoring state's wetlands

BY BRUCE SMITH

Associated Press

ALLENDALE -- The land on Willingham Plantation near the Savannah Riverhas seen the hand of man. In years past, wetlands were drained, cotton was grownand uplands planted with fast-growing saplings used for timber.

Now Robert Clement III is working to reverse that and return the property tothe way nature created it. It has taken a decade and sweat equity, and in theend, it is something he knows he will never be able to complete.

"We can't take it back exactly the way it was. We won't accomplishthat," Clement said as he jockeyed an electric cart along the trailsrambling through the 1,000-acre family plantation just up from the U.S. Highway301 bridge crossing into Georgia.

But the Charleston real estate developer is among a growing number oflandowners working to restore wetlands around South Carolina.

More than a third of the land at Willingham is set aside under a 30-yeareasement under the Wetland Reserve Program of the U.S. Agriculture Department'sNatural Resources Conservation Service.

The land cannot be developed, and in return, the government provides a modestcash incentive, as well as technical and financial assistance to restorewetlands, which filter groundwater, help reduce flooding and provide wildlifehabitat.

"The more habitat you have here, the more wildlife you can havesurrounding it," said Walter Earley, a district conservationist with theNatural Resources Conservation Service.

Since 1996, about 25,000 acres of restorable wetlands have been enrolled inthe program statewide. Last year alone, $10 million in assistance was providedto landowners in the state.

"It's a good investment for the government of the United States,"Earley said.

Clement and his father, a prominent Charleston attorney, assembled the tractfrom two former farming plantations.

They started by restoring the 4,500-square-foot plantation house once used asa hunting lodge. It had fallen so badly into disrepair that the interiorrequired pressure washing.

As difficult as that was, restoring wetlands is even more of a challenge.

The family has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to replant trees,remove old culverts that drained the land and install irrigation systems andpumps.

When he started, "I was unconsciously incompetent," Clement saidwith a laugh. "It's moved to the point where I'm consciouslyincompetent."

The idea, when they bought the land, was to have a hunting plantation.

"We thought this is a place in the county where you go and buy it andyou go out and plant a few fields and wildlife will show up and then you gohunting," he said.

But much of the wildlife had disappeared because of alterations through theyears. Clement took classes on everything from tree farming to wildlife,learning just how difficult it can be to restore an ecosystem.

Uplands had been planted with fast-growing loblolly pines, which are greatfor turning timber profits, but not so great for wildlife habitat. Longleafpines are the indigenous trees in the area.

"It handles fire, and it's good for wildlife," Clement said."When you burn the weeds, the grasses that grow up are wildlife food, plusits cone is edible."

With loblolly forests, "the deer had better be packing his lunch boxbecause he's going through a biological desert," he added. In some places,the loblolly was clear cut and replaced with plantings of long leaf pine.

In other areas, drainage pipes were removed and berms restored to bring thewater table back to normal.

"You have to be willing to fail," Clement said. "The firsttime I tried planting some hardwood bottoms, it didn't work so well. The firstcouple of times we planted the long leaf, it didn't work so well."

At the far end of the property, a gentle breeze wafts through trees reflecteddarkly in the standing water of a reclaimed wetland. It looks like otherbottomland swamps in the Lowcountry.

Another sign of success is that alligators have returned to the property.Clement wants his children to know the wild South Carolina he knew as a boyhunting and fishing on Kiawah Island when there were only a handful of homes onthe resort island.

But another reason for reclaiming the wetlands is linked to his everyday job.A number of his company's Charleston projects, about 30 in all, have involvedbuilding anew after cleaning contaminated urban sites.

Reclaiming such sites for future development may help preserve places such asWillingham, where nature is being reclaimed, Clement said.

"If we can ... reuse everything that has been used, it stops the sprawlso you don't have to use greenfields," he said. "It ties in for me. Itmakes sense for me."