Conserving Our Great Outdoors
Stuart White talks about his role at the Congaree Land Trust and his passion for protecting our green space
by Cecile S. Holmes
Billy Cate, longtime board member and former executive director of the Congaree Land Trust doesn’t hesitate when asked to recall his fondest memory of being in the great outdoors. “I have had the good fortune of living on and managing our family farms,” said Cate, who is 75. “My wife and I spend countless hours sitting on our porch watching our horses or the dogs or the birds. I can’t think of anything any better than that. The view gets refreshed every afternoon.”
His successor as executive director at the Land Trust, Stuart White, takes a very similar outlook. “I kind of grew up instilled with an appreciation of the outdoors,” says White. “Our family vacations were usually anchored in camping and the outdoors. As I went through college, hunting and fishing, I think that love of the outdoors came back, instilling in me this conservation mindset. I always tend to come back to my love of the outdoors.”
He came to his current post after a lengthy conversation – outside, of course -- with Cate. The pair were sitting on the forest floor. “I had shown some interest in the Land Trust,” White says. “I asked Billy to take me out on one of his visits to a property where the land trust had helped arrange an easement. We went to a property over in Clarendon County. We stopped at a gas station and got some fried chicken and went and sat down and talked about the trust.”
That was 2012. Soon, White became the trust’s new executive director. He still relies on Cate sometimes for advice, and speaks highly of his predecessor. The two link in something of a mutual admiration society. And both are passionate about the land trust – and the land, especially the Cowasee Basin, which spans 315,000 acres and is an acronym formed from joining the names of the Congaree, Wateree, and upper Santee Rivers.
“It’s all about balance,” White says. “When you want to conserve lands, there are a lot of things you need to take into consideration. Those include what the land means to its owners, the ecosystems that are important to humans. Whether you’re practicing agriculture, forestry or you are using it as a living area come into play.”
The trust’s role is to suggest land owners who want their land preserved in a rural, or even a wild sort of shape for future generations in the Cowasee Basin, consider an easement. The trust then assists land owners with getting that easement. “A conservation easement is a legal binding document between us and the land owner. It outlines what protections are provided to the land owner. Each easement is different but it’s all about protecting the land, the ecosystems, and so forth,” White says.
Billy Cate knows the basin’s land -- has known it since childhood. “Cowasee Basin. I was in on the ground floor of that when the concept first originated,” he says. “I’ve been bumping around in the Cowasee Basin my whole life. The really cool thing is the farthest place in the basin is 50 miles from Columbia. The basin itself has changed very little since I was a little boy. My fondest wish is that it will stay that way 60 years from now. If we’re successful in our conservation efforts, it will stay that way.
“We have 1,000 acres protected on our farm. But we have 12,000 contiguous acres that are protected. That’s the kind of thing the Cowasee Basin is trying for. The Congaree Land Trust has been the primary vehicle for providing the manpower and the expertise to put those easements together.”
Cate also hopes that the land trust will remain financially and professionally viable to continue “that process going forward.” The agencies – government and nonprofit – with which its partners are central to stoking the fire, the passion, for conservation. Those include the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, The National Audubon Society and interested land owners. Owning land and loving land is how Cate got involved through what he describes as “an evolutionary process.”
“When the subject first came up, I had hardly heard of a conservation easement,” he says. ”We started talking about it in the mid-1990s. We eventually decided it was something we wanted to do. None of us wanted the land developed. We wanted it to remain a farm or timber land. My parents were both gone at that point. I have a brother and sister. I had duties of managing the place. Now, it’s mostly timber. In the past, we had a cattle operation and grew some row crops.”
White, growing up, spent his most of his free time in the outdoors. Born in Beaufort, his family hiked and fished, and White, on his own, took up mountain-biking in college. It’s a sport he has recently returned to and one he’d like to integrate into the land trust’s programming. Both of his parents were outdoorsy. His mother’s family spent most summers camping in California’s Redwood Forest. Her dad would load the family up, head into the forest and make a campsite. Then he’d drive back into the city to work during the week while his wife and children stayed at the campsite. He’d return on weekends.
White shares his passion for being outside with his wife, Lindsey, and his two children: son Bennett, 18, and daughter Ella, 15. White graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in retail management. He didn’t realize it at the time, but both the degree and his early professional experiences offered good training for his work today. He sports 14 years of nonprofit association management including leadership roles with the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce and the S.C. Waterfowl Association. He also has 10 years’ experience in the outdoor recreation industry. Under his leadership, the land trust has conserved an additional 45,000 acres and expanded its operations to 14 counties.
But nothing really matches White’s enthusiasm and passion for his work. “We work to protect those beautiful green areas of our state that not only sustain life – whether it’s our lives or wildlife -- but also enhance them as well. Ways that support our way of life and provide very important resources for industries who consider moving to this state.”
Breaking up large land tracts into smaller parcels, overbuilding and ruining animal habitats also factor into the equation. All three can contribute to disasters like the October 2015 flood in the Midlands. White worries because not only are wildlife habitats being destroyed, but also humans are encroaching more and more on land areas that support various types of wildlife.
“So nature adapts and animals adapt,” White says. “The reason we see coyotes more in our areas now is encroachment on their lands and also the way we manage lands. There are so many different factors that play into it. If there not enough rabbits in an area for coyotes to live off of, they tend to encroach on our lands and prey on domestic animals.”
What spurs his devotion to this work? “A lifetime of outdoor experiences,” White says, adding that his hiking and working trips all over the country have given him an “aesthetic appreciation of the land” and a love for “the peace that comes from being outside.
“My enjoyment of creation and how that interplays with my relationship with God, that is very important to me,” White says. He continues to do public speaking to Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, favors a past partnership the trust had with the Columbia Museum of Art, and keeps finding new “escapes.” That program promotes appreciation of the outdoors through adventures as diverse as watching artists paint outside to paddle boating along the Congaree River. 803-988-0000, congareelt.org