Influential environmental group’s director is leaving South Carolina for Atlanta

·3 min read

The director of one of South Carolina’s most influential conservation groups is leaving the organization, four years after replacing its founder and long-time chief.

Laura Cantral, director of the Coastal Conservation League in Charleston, announced Wednesday she is stepping down for personal family reasons. She and her husband will move to Atlanta in January 2022, according to a news release.

In late 2017, Cantral replaced group founder Dana Beach, who ended his nearly three-decade run as the league’s director. Beach started the league in 1989.

Cantral, in a note to the Coastal Conservation League’s governing board, said the group had faced challenges during her time. But she said she’s proud of the league’s accomplishments.

“It has been an honor to lead this incredible organization,’’ according to the news release quoting Cantral. “When I arrived in late 2017, I knew I was stepping into a unique role — one of leader, manager, strategist, advocate, fundraiser, and steward all rolled into one.

“I could not have known the challenges and opportunities we would face over the course of the last four years, and I’m grateful for a wonderful staff and a supportive board of directors who, together, made all of our work possible.”

In an interview with The State, Cantral, 59, said the decision to leave was her own. She wasn’t ready to leave South Carolina and does not have a new job lined up in Atlanta. But she needed to be there to be closer to her mother and “help with her health issues,’’ Cantral said.

The Coastal Conservation League board will launch a nationwide search for a new executive director in coming weeks, the news release said. Beach said he has no interest in returning to the job as executive director.

The news release praised Cantral’s work with the organization. The Coastal Conservation League advocates for environmental protection in coastal South Carolina and at the State House in Columbia.

Through the years, the league has led fights against factory-style hog farms, sprawling coastal development, port expansion plans and new coal-fired power plants. It also has been instrumental in protecting valuable land in the Lowcountry.

Under Cantral, the league says it has built on past successes. That includes efforts to keep oil drilling away from the South Carolina coast; fighting to protect Captain Sam’s Spit at Kiawah Island and Bay Point Island in Beaufort County; and resolution of a dispute over routing a highway through the historic Phillips community west of Mount Pleasant.

The league today has about 40 employees, with offices in Charleston, Georgetown, Beaufort and Columbia. The organization has been in good financial shape through the years thanks to a multi-million dollar endowment and a large group of donors. Its annual budget is about $4 million.

Ceara Donnelley, the board’s chair, praised Cantral and thanked her for efforts.

“Working alongside Laura as she led the most dynamic and effective conservation advocacy organization in the Lowcountry has been an immense pleasure,’’ Donnelly said in the league news release. “Thanks to her leadership and efforts, the organization is financially and structurally sound, with an extraordinary staff that is poised to continue its essential work while the board works to identify her replacement.’’

Cantral, a lawyer, took the job with the Coastal Conservation League in late 2017 after working at the Meridian Institute, overseeing projects that included ocean policy. Her previous work also included a stint with the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.

When she arrived, Cantral had a big task ahead: replacing Beach, a conservation leader entrenched in state issues who cast a large shadow.

Beach, a Columbia native, was a well-connected “bare-knuckled’’ fighter who was quick to challenge regulators and take matters to court. Cantral, who is from Mississippi, was more refined, sometimes seeking a more collaborative approach, say those who knew both league directors.

Beach agreed the two had different management styles, but said Cantral did well.

“She kept the staff on track with a positive attitude,’’ he said.

This story has been updated from its original version.

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