RIDGELAND — In contrast to the slow-moving gopher tortoises that inhabit the Slater Tract in Jasper County, state officials approved the purchase of the 3,500-acre parcel at breakneck speed.
The request appeared before the State Fiscal Accountability Authority on Mar. 28. Gov. Henry McMaster, who chairs the authority, moved quickly through the agenda, and the $17.55 million purchase was approved without comment or discussion. The entire transaction lasted less than a minute.
The approval represents the first step in a plan to transfer more than 12,000 acres of protected land in Jasper and Hampton counties to the care of the state.
While the approval happened quickly, the plan has been in the works for three years, noted Nate Berry, senior vice president with the Open Space Institute, the agency that’s played a leading role in the conservation effort.
“You’ve got to remember that was the final phase of the process,” he said. “It had been vetted by other people and agencies, but I was happy that there was no discussion.”
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources asked the state for approval to buy the tract to protect water quality in the Port Royal Sound watershed, preserve and improve wildlife habitat and create outdoor recreational opportunities for residents.
“One of the big goals of this project is to create a protected land corridor from the 300,000 protected acres in the ACE Basin to the 500,000 acres of protected land in South Lowcountry Focus Area, which is along the Savannah River,” explained Berry.
The sale isn’t a done deal yet. The state still needs to complete some steps before the sale can be finalized, said DNR spokesman Stephen Fastenau.
Assuming the rest of the process goes according to plan, the agency will manage the property as the Jasper-Slater Sandhills Heritage Preserve, which will be open to the public
Crafting a very large land deal
The parcel, located approximately eight miles north of the Town of Ridgeland, is currently owned by the Open Space Institute. The institute is a conservation organization based in New York that also has an office in Charleston.
In the nine years the organization has had a presence in South Carolina, it has preserved about 50,000 acres over the course of 50 projects. Its niche, Berry said, is creating new public land.
Between May 2021 and April 2022, the institute made three separate purchases of Slater property totaling 5,081 acres. The investment was its first in the region.
“The Slater assemblage sits in a biodiversity hotspot on an unusually high sand ridge,” Berry said. “It’s got 68 state-priority species on it. It’s a herpetologist’s dream. It’s a special property.”
In the summer of 2022, the institute partnered with The Nature Conservancy on a plan to purchase more than 7,300 adjoining acres known as the Buckfield property, most of which is in neighboring Hampton County.
The Nature Conservancy closed on its half of the purchase in June of last year. The Open Space Institute expects to close on its portion of the property after the sale of the Slater parcel to the state is complete.
“The protection of Buckfield represents the power of innovative collaboration — working together in new ways to accomplish more than any organization could alone,” said Dale Threatt-Taylor, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in South Carolina.
Eventually, the entire combined property amounting to more than 12,300 acres will be owned and managed by the state as part of its network of wildlife management areas.
“Very rarely do we have opportunities to protect assemblages of land at this magnitude, particularly along the rapidly urbanizing coast,” said Raleigh West, executive director of the South Carolina Conservation Bank. “When you consider its size, along with the uniqueness of the wildlife habitat it provides, the Slater-Buckfield project is one of the most significant conservation victories in recent times.”
An important habitat
The Open Space Institute paid $16 million when it bought the first and largest of the Slater parcels two years ago. That’s the land the state is now planning to purchase. An appraisal completed last winter pegged the value of the 3,507-acre parcel at $19.1 million.
A federal grant provided nearly $9.5 million of the purchase price, and DNR’s Heritage Land Trust chipped in another $6 million. The Nature Conservancy and South Carolina Conservation Bank, among others, also contributed to the purchase.
DNR described the land as mix of forested uplands, bottomland hardwood forests, fields and open areas. Approximately 11 miles of the Coosawhatchie River and its tributaries are contained within the tract. It’s believed to be suitable to restore the bobwhite quail and red-cockaded woodpecker habitat.
It’s also home to a large and growing population of gopher tortoises. According to the Open Space Institute, the tortoise colony, which numbers around 150 individuals, is one of the largest in the eastern United States.
The tortoise is federally designated as an at-risk species. Its extensive underground burrows provide habitat for dozens of other animals, making it a keystone species in its ecosystem.
The transfer of the remaining Slater and Buckfield acreages to DNR is expected to take place over the coming year, though the schedule has not yet been solidified.
“It’s a huge effort,” Berry said. “This could be the biggest project I work on in my career.”