South Carolina’s ACE Basin is a model for conservationists everywhere

Delayna Earley/

As Americans become more aware of the pressing need for environmental protections, an amazing and well-kept secret for exactly how rests in their own backyard. The ACE Basin Reserve, an estuary located just south of Charleston, South Carolina, is one of the most successful examples of conservation in the world and is a prime model for other ecosystems to follow. Although every project is different, the ACE Basin resounds with echoes of what every true conservation initiative ought to possess.

The ACE Basin Reserve is one of 30 estuaries that make up the National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) system. It encompasses almost 100,000 acres of winding salt marshes, strapping oyster beds, and towering cypress swamps along the confluence of the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers. There, hundreds of miles of canals dug using slave labor for rice plantations now serve as habitat and flood management for an array of endangered species and migratory birds.

The second annual ACE Basin Research Symposium was held in Edisto, South Carolina in October and was a chance for leading ecologists, marine biologists, and other scientists to share information about one of the largest undeveloped estuaries on the east coast of the United States. The story of this remarkable reserve’s formation was featured at its center.

Protections for the estuary were formalized in the late 1980s with the creation of the ACE Basin Task Force, an exceptional assemblage of public, private, local, state, and national organizations and individuals. These have worked together to volunteer, protect and conserve the nearly 350,000 acres of the estuary for the past three decades.

Private landowners are the basin’s largest protectors and a congregation of over 150 have collectively placed 148,000 acres of easements on their properties. In total, 83% of the basin’s land is protected through private efforts — but not without guidance, funding, and research from public and governmental entities. Groups ranging from Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have had major parts to play in the story, and the reserve is managed day-to-day by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).

It is this public-private partnership to which the ACE Basin Reserve can attribute much of its success, and to which other conservation efforts should heed. Protections do not come from rigid mandates from the top, nor do they derive from disordered initiatives from the bottom. Rather, the government funds and scientifically supports a framework for passionate private individuals to fulfill in their local communities.

The reserve also strikes a balance between conservation and human use of the land, as restricting big development in favor of recreation, hunting, and fishing is a leading driver behind its protection. The Basin’s motto has long been: “protecting a way of life by maintaining traditional uses and values.” In other words, protections in the Basin were formed with posterity in mind, recognizing that humans are not meant to be fully hands-off nature but to enjoy it as a gift. Luckily, legislation like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will help fund these reserves for years to come.

This system of management has made the ACE Basin world renowned. When asked about how the ACE Basin can serve as a model for other conservation projects, Julie Binz, manager of the NERR, said, “We work together in the reserve system to share these kinds of models and ideas so that you can take them to your own special place and emulate them.” She added that the NERR system works so well because people from a myriad of backgrounds have found ways to work together for the same environmental goals.

No conservation story is perfect, but the ACE Basin reveals that the secret to success is not found in partisan struggles of government versus individuals, but in compromise, utility, and valuing posterity.

Evan Patrohay, a Fulbright Scholar, is a graduate of Clemson University, a proud South Carolinian and a member of the American Conservation Coalition.