Aging Activists Gather at Congaree National Park to Recall a Nick-of-Time Rescue

Without this motley crew -- and other "aging activists" not shown -- there would have been no Congaree National Park. Jim Elder, front center, orchestrated the winning campaign. South Carolina ETV's Betsy Newman is on the far right. The bearded guy standing behind her was a worker bee in the Congaree campaign when he was 35 years younger and 15 pounds lighter. Tracy Swartout photo.

The spectacular old-growth forest of the Congaree floodplain would have been lost forever had it not been for a grassroots campaign that achieved a most improbable victory back in the 1970s. Last weekend, veterans of the campaign gathered at Congaree National Park to share pictures of their grandchildren and memories of the long-ago struggle.

It’s Sunday afternoon, April 5th, and it’s a gorgeous spring day at South Carolina’s Congaree National Park. It’s this kind of day you want to pick for visiting the park if you don’t like skeeters and heat. By lunchtime the parking lots are nearly full and visitors are streaming into the visitor center and onto the park’s boardwalk trail.

Just a few steps from the westernmost parking lot sits a spacious picnic shelter built with funds supplied by Friends of Congaree Swamp. This damn fine facility testifies to the love that FOCS has lavished on this place.

On this particular afternoon the shelter holds an unusual admixture of people, technology, and Miscellaneous Stuffe. At one end of the shelter is a table covered with yellowed newspaper clippings, dog-eared publications, posters, and old bumper stickers reading “Preserve the Congaree Swamp.” A South Carolina Educational Television crew has set up a camera, microphone, klieg light, and other paraphernalia. A reporter/photographer for the state’s largest newspaper is talking to ranger Stuart Greeter. Park Superintendent Tracy Swartout is working the room.

Scattered about are knots and clusters of senior citizens and late middle-agers who are drinking in every moment of this happy/sad occasion. They are old friends (the very best kind) and they are enjoying each other’s company. They’ve come here from all over South Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and other places. This is their first gathering in more than 30 years.

These oldsters are the people who organized and ran the grassroots campaign that saved the old-growth forest of the Congaree back in the 1970s. SCETV has landed a grant to produce a documentary about the creation of Congaree National Park. It will be shown later this year, presumably coattailing on the Ken Burns national parks documentary that is scheduled for release this fall.

This event at Congaree has been staged for the cameras and microphones. The ETV crew wants sound bites. The reporter from The State wants quotable material.

The couples and families on the walkways seem not to notice the shelter and its occupants. But we are watching them. We know that these people have come to this place for a personal encounter with the most magnificent hardwood forest in America. They’ve come to see Redwoods East. And we know that this biological treasure wouldn’t be here today were it not for a miracle of environmental activism that happened more than three decades ago.

See that young couple over there? The ones with the baby stroller and the black lab? They may take this place for granted, but we don’t. We know what a close thing it was.

They were going to log this forest, you see, and anybody with half a brain could see that it was a done deal. Yet there the forest still stands. Good God almighty, there it still stands.

Our gaze moves from the parking lot and walkway to the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, surely one of the most gorgeous visitor centers in the entire National Park System. We look beyond to the forested floodplain. You can walk into that forest and disappear. There are tens of thousands of acres of trees out there, including giants of their kind. For every state or national champion there are many others nearly as large. This forest is nature’s cathedral.

The “how-are-you’s” are over, and it’s time for the main event. The klieg light flips on, the camera rolls, the chatter subsides.

Jim Elder is the first to speak. That’s the way it should be. Jim was the brains behind the fight to save this forest. He is a true environmental hero.

Jim says that the floodplain forest of the Congaree is the last of its kind, a “living dinosaur.” He reminds us that the owners of this magnificent forest began harvesting trees in the late 1960s after their foresters told them that the forest was “economically overmature.” The softwoods on the bluffs were to be clear-cut for sawtimber and pulp on a 30-year cycle. The hardwoods on the floodplain would be cut for lumber and veneer-peeling on a 50-year cycle. Huge swaths of old-growth forest would be gone in a few decades. Eventually none would be left.

Jim tells how profoundly moved he was when he first saw the giant stumps, deeply gouged earth, and clearings produced by the early cuts. He explains how his conscience wouldn’t let him rest easy with the thought of those forest giants being felled and hauled away to the mills. He tells how the grassroots campaign to save the forest and get a national park established was organized, fought, and won. Humble as always, he credits the efforts of many others, including people who could not be present.

Others speak in their turn. Dick Watkins, John Cely, Brion Blackwelder, Brusi Alexander, Ann Jennings, Harriott Hampton Faucette, Steve Collum, Ann Timberlake, Edmund Taylor, John Culler ...... Each relates anecdotes that make us remember, make us laugh, make us cry.

The years have blurred our memories, but there are some things easily recalled. The salient fact is this: Legislation establishing this national park -- then designated Congaree Swamp National Monument -- was signed into law by President Gerald Ford on October 18, 1976.

It’s my turn to speak. There seems little to say that hasn’t already been said. I’m camera shy. I manage to relate an anecdote that goes like this: One afternoon I was working the information desk at the park when in walked Marion Burnside, a man who had been our fiercest adversary in the fight to save the Congaree forest. We chatted, and I asked Marion how he felt about the outcome of that long-ago battle. He told me that he was glad the forest was spared, glad that it was a national park. Who’d have thunk it?

Before I sit down I point out that all of us who fought to save the Congaree now know that the battle was a defining moment in our lives, a time when circumstances forced us to consider who we are, what we stand for, what we are willing to fight tooth and nail for. In the final analysis, I point out, we fought to save this great forest because it was the right thing to do.

Two hours have sped by. The last speaker finishes, sits down. We run out of time before all can be heard. In the audience I see faces of more campaign veterans. Guy Jones, Larry and Nancy Turner, Ted Snyder......

I think about the many who could not be there. Harry Hampton,Richard Pough, James Tanner, Catherine Gilbert, Doug Salisbury, Hyman Rubin, Walter Bristow, Isadore Lourie, Bill Campbell, Ed Easton, John Terborgh, Jane Lareau, Brock Evans, John Hughes Cooper, Daryl Hickman, John Dennis, Charles Wharton, Jan Stucker, Lee Bandy..... I know there are more names I should remember, but I cannot. This saddens and embarrasses me.

Superintendent Swartout makes some concluding remarks. At one point she tells the group that taking my national park course at the University of South Carolina was what triggered her interest in a National Park Service career. I feel a flush of pride. Old college professors, like teachers everywhere, live through their students.

We eat a better-than-it-has-to-be meal prepared by FOCS stalwart John Grego. The chatter ebbs. People start drifting away. We say our goodbyes. We go our separate ways.

This park will be in our minds and in our hearts until we die.

Many of us continue to serve the park in one way or another. Dick Watkins -- the guy in the front row wearing that big white name tag -- is the most conspicuous example of that. The National Parks Conservation Association named Dick citizen conservationist of the year in 2003 and lauded his “passionate, relentless, and effective" work in behalf of the park when it presented him with its prestigious Marjory Stoneman Douglas Award. The awards keep coming. Just this year, the National Wildlife Federation presented Dick with a National Conservation Achievement award. We who know Dick know that words and awards can adequately express what he has done for the park. Like Jim Elder and John Cely and Brion Blackwelder and some others who would blush if I mentioned their names in this context, Dick is an environmental hero.

Postscript: Some things that happen make you wonder whether life is a roll of the dice or a drama orchestrated by a Guiding Hand. Not long after the Congaree campaign, Jim Elder left South Carolina and moved to Fairfax, Virginia. Two decades would pass before I would see him again. In 1998 my wife, who was adopted, was tracked down by her birth siblings. In this way she learned that she has a biomom, a brother, and three sisters. While talking to one of my wife’s long-lost sisters, the one who lives in faraway Anchorage, Alaska, I learned that she had met and married Jim Elder’s brother Sean. If you can calculate the odds, please let me know.


What a great reminder that "ordinary people" can make a real difference in our world!

I think you've pretty much hit it on the head, Jim. As Jim said in his opening remarks, "all we had was the voice of the people."

Looking forward to my first visit to Congaree soon (April 19-20.) Odd to think I had never heard of it just a few months ago. Now it seems every time I turn around there is another mention of it someplace. I guess this is building up to be a good trip, I better clean my camera lens! Hopefully will have some great photos and stories posted in a few weeks.

Lots of people have never heard of Congaree National Park, Jess. Publicity has been stepped up since the park was redesignated (from National Monument) nearly six years ago, but Congaree is still one of the better kept secrets. Since you're interested in photographing big trees, you should be aware that light conditions are apt to be a bit tricky because the canopy is closed over extensive areas, leaving just filtered light on the forest floor. Another problem is the sheer size of the forest giants. Often, getting it all in is just not possible, so it's common for photographers to have somebody stand near the base of a tree "for scale" when they take the picture. To see the best giant trees you'll need to float the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail or walk one of the dirt trails (which is not to say that the trees you can see from the boardwalk are slouches). Heavy rains in the Congaree-Broad-Saluda watershed can put the dirt trails underwater or leave them too muddy to use, so if your travel schedule is flexible it's always a good idea to phone ahead. Have fun! Bob