Adding the Riverstone tract to South Carolina's Congaree National Park is creating new infrastructure development opportunities and protecting a key link in a 30-mile long conservation corridor stretching along the Congaree, Wateree, and upper Santee Rivers.
Several decades ago, when I still had my hair and Congaree National Park was still Congaree Swamp National Monument, there was a little ritual we Congaree boosters would perform with a park map spread out on the table. We’d stare at its eastern edge, sigh (sometimes loudly), and think (always wistfully) “Wouldn’t it be nice to push the park’s authorized boundary across Highway 601 and all the way east to that South Carolina Public Service Authority land on the upper Santee River?” Maybe we could have a park entrance and a highway-accessible campground there. Maybe someday there could be an unbroken corridor of protected state and federal lands stretching up and down the Congaree, Wateree, and Upper Santee. Maybe pigs will fly. It just wasn’t the sort of thing we thought we’d live to see.
A large chunk of the riverine corridor we stared at so longingly is accounted for by the Riverstone tract, a 1,840-acre parcel of flood plain and river bottom forest land straddling Highway 601 on the north side of the Congaree River. Like the even-larger Bates Fork tract that adjoined it to the east and extended all the way to the PSA land on the upper Santee, this was privately owned land. Even if the owners were to signal willingness to sell, acquiring the land would take a lot of money.
It seems that where there is a will, there is a way. In 2003, Congress redesignated the park as Congaree National Park and authorized a 4,600-acre expansion that brought both the Riverstone and Bates Fork tracts within the park’s authorized boundaries. The Park Service purchased the Bates Fork tract for $6 million in 2005, using the FY 2005 appropriation. Then, in late 2007 the owner of the Riverstone tract agreed to sell the property for its federally-appraised market value of $5.88 million.
Although the Friends of Congaree Swamp and literally dozens of other NGOs have been involved in advocacy roles for the Riverstone purchase, one National Park Service partner, the Trust for Public Land (TPL), has played an especially vital role. TPL had pockets sufficiently deep to enable the organization to pledge the $5.58 million from its revolving fund. TPL’s part of the process would be to buy the Riverstone tract and then sell it to the park piece by piece as the Park Service came up with the money. Hopefully, Congress would be generous with appropriations and the park would acquire all 1,840 acres of the Riverstone tract within a few years.
The first part of the arrangement went very smoothly. TPL purchased about one-third of the Riverstone tract for $2 million in April 2008 and then bought the remaining acreage for $3.88 million in April 2009. A celebration followed, though much work remained.
The transfer of the land from TPL to the park is also proceeding at a gratifying pace and may well be completed by the end of FY 2011, which is about as quickly as anyone could have expected. Using a combination of NPS emergency acquisition funding and remnants of the FY 2005 appropriation, the park was able to buy 156.25 acres of the Riverstone tract from TPL in 2008 for $500,000. A total of 838 more acres was purchased for $2.69 million in FY 2009. The latter acquisition included all 308 acres of the Riverstone tract lying east of Highway 601 and contiguous with the earlier-acquired 2,395-acre Bates Fork tract.
Thanks to the most recent Appropriations Bill (Public Law 111-88), the Park Service will have another $1.32 million in FY 2010, which is enough to buy about 412.5 more acres. This will bring the total to about 1,406 acres, leaving around 434 acres to be purchased at a cost of $1.37 million. The Friends of Congaree Swamp and other park advocates, including Senator Lindsey Graham and Representative Jim Clyburn, are already working to convince Congress that it should appropriate the needed funds for FY 2011.
Postscript: The Riverstone tract expansion is not the only issue in the spotlight on the eastern margins of Congaree National Park. The section of Highway 601 that traverses the Congaree River flood plain there is scheduled for a major upgrade, and the Park Service and its partner NGOs have strongly objected to features of the planned overhaul that appear to be incompatible with the park’s dual mission to preserve the resources under its care and provide for public access and use. Critics have argued that, among other things, the planned upgrade will have a barrier effect severely impeding water flow and wildlife movement in the floodplain.