The Carolina Bays Ecosystem in Horry County has received national recognition for the partnership of state and federal agencies and private landowners to preserve this pristine natural area.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has officially designated the Carolina Bays Ecosystem as one of eight “Exemplary Ecosystems” nationwide for 2005.
“I’m very proud of the partnership on so many levels that led to the important preservation of the Carolina Bays Ecosystem while improving the transportation system with a vital highway, the Carolina Bays Parkway,” said South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) Executive Director Elizabeth S. Mabry. “We can accomplish great things by working together. This was win-win for both the motoring public and our treasured environment.”
FHWA’s Division Administrator Bob Lee said, “Transportation improvements and environmental stewardship are not competing goals. This project is just one example of how creative partners can come to the table and find solutions that accomplish the needed transportation improvements while also preserving and enhancing South Carolina’s pristine ecosystems.”
SCDOT built the 28-mi. Carolina Bays Parkway, which opened to traffic in December 2002. The project presented a challenge of preserving environmentally sensitive areas. Horry County is home to pristine natural areas, including the Waccamaw River and Lewis Ocean Bay Natural Heritage Preserves, totaling more than 20,000 acres.
Located on the Waccamaw River, these preserves are important natural resources in public ownership. They are ecologically linked to other large natural areas in the Waccamaw River drainage, including Lake Waccamaw State Park and the Green Swamp, managed by The Nature Conservancy, just over the border in North Carolina. The largest population of black bears in South Carolina is in Horry County. Rare and endangered species such as the Venus Fly-trap, the Bald Eagle, and the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker make their homes in Horry County. A rare wetland environment indigenous to this region, the Carolina Bay, is found in Horry County.
The challenge for leaders at the SCDOT and FHWA was how to accommodate these additional demands on the transportation system in a way that sustains the natural wonders of Horry County and all of the diverse species. Preventing further habitat fragmentation of the regional black bear population while at the same time allowing for economic growth in the area was a concern. Leaders from SCDOT and FHWA knew that this challenge would require a new kind of thinking.
Transportation and resource agency leaders searched for opportunities to preserve, enhance and expand the Lewis Ocean Bay Natural Heritage Preserve and the wildlife corridor to Tilly Swamp/Waccamaw Natural Heritage Preserve. An agreement was signed between several of the agencies in 2003 that outlined steps to accomplish these goals. SCDOT and FHWA put $2.5 million into an escrow account to be spent on the preservation and expansion of Lewis Ocean Bay and the wildlife linkage zone. This federal-aid money was agreed upon as partial mitigation for two new interchanges that would be added to the Carolina Bays Parkway.
A management system was put in place for the funds and an Ecosystem Committee was formed from members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the SC Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Ecosystem Committee is overseeing the expenditure of those funds on projects that will enhance, preserve or expand the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve and protect the Waccamaw River wildlife linkage corridor.
Additionally, SCDOT purchased access control of a public road that, in essence, limited growth opportunities in that area and protected some of the land adjacent to the preserve.
Knowing it could not do it all on their own, SCDOT invited private landowners to become part of the solution as well. In exchange for one of the new interchanges on the Carolina Bays Parkway, the private landowners are donating to SCDNR a 320-acre tract called Tiger Bay. Tiger Bay was a privately owned in-holding within Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve that could be developed. In the end, both the transportation goals and the ecosystem goals were met through this collaborative partnership.
Everyone agreed to preserve and expand the valuable Lewis Ocean Bay and all of its ecosystem values while at the same time allowing responsible growth to occur with the addition of two new interchanges on the Carolina Bays Parkway in areas that would not jeopardize the natural resources.