Salt marsh on Hunting Island, SC. Blue sky and clouds reflect in water and a tree stands in the middle on a hammock of land.

Getting to Know… Lowcountry Land Conservation

Our 5 Questions Getting to Know Series asks our program officers to provide an introduction to our work and insights about what is interesting and unique about each of our program areas.

By Jason Crowley, Lowcountry Program Director

Why does the Foundation support land conservation in the Lowcountry? 

One of my favorite things to do in the Lowcountry is walk along the rice impoundments at the ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge. Every time I visit, no matter the season, I always discover something new; it never gets old. Sometimes, I see deer or otters. Sometimes, it’s countless flocks of migratory birds – too many to count. More than once I’ve had to double back because there were more than a few alligators sunbathing in the middle of the path. No matter how many times I visit, it never gets old – it’s always an adventure.  There’s no wonder that Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley also fell in love with this land more than a half century ago. Our commitment to land conservation is directly tied to their legacy, values, and vision.   

The reasons for supporting land conservation go far beyond natural beauty. It is about protecting some of the most biodiverse landscapes in the world, addressing climate change and investing in climate resilience, supporting rural economies through the preservation of working lands, and engaging in cultural conservation. All of it is about ensuring that future generations have a chance to experience and enjoy the unique qualities of this region.  

We do it because we love the Lowcountry.

Are there important terms or concepts to help understand land conservation?

There is a lot of jargon that can get thrown around when it comes to land conservation. Here are few terms to help you understand some of the major issues and concepts in land conservation: 

Land conservation: Let’s start at the beginning. Land conservation is a way of life for many people in the Lowcountry who grew up fishing, harvesting oysters, hunting, birding, planting and the myriad other ways locals enjoy the land. At base, land conservation is about protecting our lands and natural resources for future generations to enjoy. 

Easement: One of the early tools of land conservation in the Lowcountry. An easement is a legal agreement attached to a property’s deed that dictates how a piece of land can be used in the future. Conservation easements frequently place limits on use and development. 

Data sets and comprehensive plans: Conservation is about so much more than restricting future development. Organizations, landowners, and government agencies collect lots of information like wildlife corridors, soil composition, areas prone to flooding. This data helps inform long-term comprehensive planning: plans used to identify areas for future growth and where land conservation should be prioritized.  

Greenbelt and Urban Growth Boundary: These are growth management tools that help control suburban sprawl and preserve natural landscapes. A greenbelt is what it sounds like—an area of natural land around a city where development should be limited in order to protect wildlife and other natural resources.  

Working lands: Lands where activities like farming and timbering take place. Working lands are an important part of the landscape, contributing to rural economies, preventing suburban sprawl, and providing locally sourced food and materials.  

Watershed: Simply put, it’s an area where rivers, streams, and rainfall drain into a common outlet. For the Foundation, a watershed-focused mindset helps us take a systems-based approach to our work. 


Did you know?

Charleston County established South Carolina’s first urban growth boundary in the early 2000s as part of strategic planning. It created a fund to preserve the greenbelt outside the city and called for creating park spaces inside the growth boundary. This model has been adopted throughout the Lowcountry.


How do you decide where you support land conservation efforts? 

The Foundation has always supported land conservation throughout the nine coastal counties of South Carolina. From north to south, they are: Horry, Georgetown, Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester, Colleton, Beaufort, Jasper, and Hampton. In 2022, we added Williamsburg and Marion Counties as part of the growing watershed focus of our strategy. This means what happens upstream benefits those downstream and vice versa. This watershed approach was driven by five years of consecutive major flooding and scientific data showing that conserving land adjacent to rivers and tributaries upstream helps minimize flooding downstream.  

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What’s something surprising or interesting about land conservation in the Lowcountry that people might not know about?  

Most of the natural landscapes conserved in the Lowcountry are not untouched by humans. It is impossible to divorce the land from the cultural history that has shaped it for millennia. Look at any aerial survey or traverse the lands on foot and you’ll see the marks of humans on almost every acre. Land conservation is cultural conservation and cultural conservation is land conservation. Talking about land conservation also means engaging in difficult conversations. Not just conversations about development vs. preservation, but discussions about the legacies of colonization and enslavement.  

The Lowcountry has been inhabited for thousands of years. First by indigenous tribes, many of which are still present in the region today, such as the Yemassee, Pee Dee, Waccamaw, Wassamassaw, and Edisto Kusso-Natchez tribes. Their ancestors left behind burial mounds, shell rings, and trails that have since evolved into many of the roads that are still used today.  

Europeans and enslaved Africans further transformed the Lowcountry. The terrible legacy of enslavement is literally carved into the land, from cleared forests, canals, drained swamps, and dykes. Enslaved Africans brought their knowledge and expertise of harnessing the salt marsh tides with them to build the rice plantations that fueled the Lowcountry’s wealth. Today, those rice fields provide a critical habitat for migratory birds, just one example of how conserved land protects both cultural history and significant ecological benefits. 

In the Lowcountry, our natural landscapes were shaped by humans who now fight to conserve them!  

What’s the most exciting thing the Foundation does to support Lowcountry land conservation grantees? 

One of the things that I think is most exciting about how we support land conservation organizations is by approaching the work not just as a funder but as a partner and convener. It’s baked into our history. Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley were proud conservationists and were instrumental in shaping what is now known as the ACE Basin, one of the largest permanently protected estuaries in the country. The Donnelleys helped bring together other private landowners as well as professional conservation organizations and state and federal agencies to create this wildly successful initiative.  

In the decades since, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation has maintained Mr. and Mrs. Donnelley’s passion for building bridges between communities, conservationists, and government officials by regularly hosting roundtable discussions between land conservation organizations to develop strategies and goals for land protection. The Foundation hosts a biennial land conservation symposium in the Lowcountry for its grantees and other local stakeholders to come together to learn about current issues and best practices related to land conservation. 

The Foundation has always believed that it can provide more support to the organizations it serves and the work they accomplish beyond simply awarding grants. Providing a space to convene, exchange ideas, and develop technical skills to enhance land conservation has always and remains one of the most powerful and exciting things that the Foundation does to support its land conservation grantees.  

Bonus Question: Is there a resource you recommend to get a better understanding of land conservation in the Lowcountry? 

There are so many great books about the Lowcountry to better understand the unique culture and history that has shaped the landscape and influenced land conservation. If I could only choose one, it’s A Delicate Balance: Constructing a Conservation Culture in the South Carolina Lowcountry by Angela Halfacre.  

This book delves into the intense development pressure along the South Carolina coast since Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and outlines how communities, professional conservationists, and the regional history and culture itself have responded to that change over the past three decades.  


Lowcountry Land Conservation Program At-a-Glance


Total acres protected: 1.42 million (as of 2023)

Annual grant budget: $1.6 million   

Average # of grantees: 26 organizations 

Program Officer: Jason Crowley 


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