Throughout South Carolina as well as in the ACE Basin study area, significant natural areas are designated using The Heritage Trust Program. Nationally, the Heritage Trust Program was developed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in the early 1970's. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources initiated a Heritage Trust Program in South Carolina in 1976. The program uses common, standards-based methodologies to collect, maintain, and share information about endangered, threatened, or rare plants, animals, and ecological communities. For more information, refer to The Heritage Trust Program's web site .
Over the years, the staff of South Carolina's Heritage Trust Program have recognized two hundred and forty-six sites in the ACE Basin study area as significant natural areas (Heritage Trust Database 1997). By definition, these are natural areas that contain endangered or threatened animal and plant species; outstanding remnants of an undisturbed plant community or ecosystem; unusual or outstanding scientific, education, aesthetic, or recreational characteristics; or unique landforms. Significant natural areas in the ACE Basin study area and throughout South Carolina are selected through a process that involves a systematic search for sites of high natural value (i.e., containing endangered or threatened species), an evaluation of the sites' value, and the application of various legal mechanisms for protecting the most highly valued sites. The first step of the process is to identify and characterize the natural communities. Heritage Trust staff and other professionals, including the staff of The Nature Conservancy, naturalists, and botanists, employ aerial photo interpretation, as well as aerial and ground survey techniques, to locate and characterize potential natural areas. During aerial and ground surveys, the size, natural quality (i.e., lack of disturbance), and unique character of the species or community type are recorded. Additional information that the scientists compile includes the total number of occurrences of the species or community type range-wide, and the status of the species population or community types throughout its range (i.e., increasing or declining in numbers).
Next, this information is used to evaluate the significance of the natural areas. Criteria used to rank the areas include the uniqueness of the elements (i.e., species or plant communities) and the natural quality (i.e., level of disturbance) of the sites. Sites that contain elements that are rare, threatened, or endangered throughout their range and have a high natural quality (undisturbed maritime forest) receive the highest priority. In contrast, sites that contain elements that are only rare in part of its range and have a low natural quality (i.e., ditches) are ranked as low priority sites, or not significant (Rayner 1984, TNC 1994). Other factors considered during the evaluation process include the availability of the sites and the ability of Heritage Trust to protect the sites.
Finally, various mechanisms are employed to protect the areas that have high priority (SCDNR undated). If possible, the State of South Carolina either buys or acquires an easement on the high priority sites. These protected properties are dedicated as Heritage Preserves in perpetuity to SCDNR under the terms of the Heritage Trust Act. Some sites are further protected by placing them in the SC Heritage Trust. This protection specifies the public as the beneficiary and SCDNR as the trustee. For sites that are unavailable for purchase or a permanent conservation easement, the State attempts to obtain a Registration agreement in which the Heritage Trust Program and the property owner agree to protect the natural area by appropriate management. However, these agreements are voluntary and may be canceled with a thirty-day notice (SCDNR undated). In addition, the Heritage Trust staff employs the Threatened and Endangered Species Act to protect the habitat of endangered and threatened species.
The two hundred and forty-six significant natural areas in the ACE Basin study area differ in size, natural quality, and uniqueness in regard to species and community type. Some of these natural areas are as small as a few square feet (i.e., a bald eagle nesting site). Others are larger than a thousand acres (i.e., Snuggedy Swamp). The quality of the natural areas in the Basin varies from highly disturbed to pristine (e.g. Otter Island). Some areas contain federally or state endangered or threatened species. Other sites include species that may be threatened or endangered in their range. Consequently, the priority ranking of ACE Basin study area's natural areas ranges from national to local significance.
Sites with Endangered and Threatened Species Habitat
In 1996, twenty-eight nesting pairs of federally threatened bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) were utilizing sixty-six sites as nesting, roosting, and feeding habitats. Bald eagles usually nest within a mile of estuarine rivers and impoundments of the ACE Basin NERR, and the nest areas are less than 0.4 hectares (one acre) in size (USFWS 1987, Charlotte Hope, SCDNR Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, pers. comm.). Nests are found in the tops of the tallest and largest loblolly pines in pine and mixed hardwood-pine forests of the ACE Basin study area. Most of the roosting trees and feeding habitats are within the watersheds of the Combahee and South Edisto Rivers. The federally threatened loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) use several natural areas. Nesting sites for this species in South Carolina are on the beaches of Edisto, Otter and Harbor islands.
Two statewide threatened species, Wilson=s plover (Charadrius wilsonia) and the least tern (Sterna antillarum), reside in the ACE Basin study area. Both species nest on Edisto Beach, and least terns have also been found nesting on a bird key (small island in St. Helena Sound) near Harbor Island. (See related sections: Birds: Beach Community and Bird Keys .)
Sites with Species of Concern
Sites with Outstanding Remnants of Plant Communities
One natural area in the study area is the relatively undisturbed Otter Island, a 1,300-hectare (3,232-acre) barrier island. The island encompasses a full array of maritime estuarine, and palustrine communities, including dunes, maritime forests, Spartina marshes, and fresh to brackish ponds. The island has several nesting colonies of rare birds and populations of rare plants.
Sites with Outstanding Scientific Characteristics
Heritage Trust staff continuously updates information about natural areas as new occurrences are found, existing populations change, and the status of species or plant communities are reclassified. The Heritage Trust Program relies on the assistance of professionals that can track and document the occurrences of rare species and communities. The staff will provide technical guidance and appropriate forms and maps to all who are interested in helping with this process.
S. Upchurch, SCDNR Marine Resources Research Institute
Custer, T.W. and R.G. Osborn. 1978. Wading birds as biological indicators: 1975 colony survey. United States Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service. Special Scientific Report - Wildlife No. 206. Washington, DC.
Dodd, M.G. and T.M. Murphy. 1997. The status and distribution of wading birds in South Carolina, 1988-1996. The Chat 61(3): 129-181.
Heritage Trust Database. 1997. List of threatened and endangered species. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Freshwater Fisheries and Wildlife Diversity Division.
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The Governor=s Office. 1990. Report of the Governor=s Freshwater Wetlands Forum. The Governor=s Office, Division of Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources. 1205 Pendleton Street, Columbia, South Carolina.
[NOAA] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 1992. Ashepoo-Combahee-Edisto (ACE) Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve in South Carolina, Final Management Plan. U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA, National Ocean Service, S.C. Coastal Council, and S.C. Wildlife and Marine Resources Department.
SCDNR. undated. South Carolina Heritage Trust brochure. Published by SC Wildlife and Marine Resources Dept (currently SCDNR).
TNC. 1993. ACE Basin biological inventory report, 1990-1992. The Nature Conservancy. Charleston, South Carolina.
TNC. 1994. Rare plant communities of the conterminous United States. Prepared by The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, South Carolina. Prepared for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
USFWS. 1987. Habitat management guidelines for the bald eagle in the southeast region. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service. Atlanta, Georgia.
Water Resources Division. 1996. Managing resources for a sustainable, the Edisto River Basin project report. Sponsored by the United States Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Published by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Columbia.
Webster, W.D., J.F. Parnell, and W.C. Biggs, Jr. 1985. Mammals of the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
Williams, L.E. 1976. Recovery plan for the eastern brown pelican (preliminary draft). U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service. Atlanta, Georgia.