Documenting a Moral Imperative: Filming Common Ground: South Carolina’s ACE Basin

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It’s moral, it’s a moral imperative. There’s no question about that. And if we were to destroy this land and ren­der it useless or change its character or distort the his­tory of the land and not be honest to the land, I think we’ve done something very immoral.

— Charles Lane
ACE Basin Task Force

Saving the ACE Basin

South Carolina’s seacoast—some two hundred miles of beaches, estuaries, natural harbors, and maritime forests—is a financial blessing to the state. Year round, vacationers, eager to bathe in the sun and surf, fill the hotels, condominiums, campgrounds, and beachfront homes. Visitors who combine short business trips with golf and fish­ing often return to their northern homes already shap­ing plans for migrating to this American Cote d’Azur, with its temperate climate and secure gated commu­nities. The resulting growth has been financially dy­namic for developers and entrepreneurs as well as a source of jobs for construction workers, hotel staffs, and retail employees. This growth, however, has also exacted a price, for it has damaged or destroyed thou­sands of acres of wetlands, homes to countless species and the spawning grounds for marine life. While no one doubts that this employment is important to the people of a state with staggering financial woes and a struggling educational system, a careful look at the Lowcountry’s history since the second World War points to the structural growth that has crept from coastal South Carolina’s northern and southern tips, each fairway, cul-de-sac, and marina bringing jobs but simultaneously destroying the ecosystems that nur­ture a treasured coastline.

During the mid-1980s, this growing threat to the environment began to alarm many South Carolinians, especially those who had for generations lived in the ACE River Basin, an area south of Charleston and north of Beaufort whose core area comprises approximately 350,000 acres of barrier islands, wetlands, swamps, timber stands, and upland. Named for the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers that flow through the region into St. Helena Sound, the basin is a favorite refuge for waterfowl along the Atlantic Flyway, home to countless species of flora and fauna, and a source of livelihood for fisherfolk, timber growers, and farmers. Moreover, it is a loved destination for naturalists, sci­entists, hikers, hunters, and boaters. Losing the ACE Basin to development would be to lose not just a way of life, but home itself. For the Basin to be overcome by growth from the north and the south would mean not just the loss of livelihood, but the loss of identity as well. The ACE Basin, however, was not lost, and the story of its conservation is the story of how love of the land inspired bold, creative action. The Center for Humans and Nature’s production of the documentary Common Ground: South Carolina’s ACE Basin tells the story of the land and the people whose conserva­tion efforts were and continue to be nothing less than heroic. This story has its roots, however, in over two centuries of plantation development.

The economic system of the plantations relied on slaves who, as they worked the land for their masters, imbued the region with a rich cultural heritage that continues to flourish. Among their accomplishments was the creation of a rice culture, a system of growing rice along the rivers in diked impoundments, which are earthen structures irrigated by water-controlling trunks—ingenious devices, likely of West African ori­gin, that used the rivers’ tides to flood and drain the fields. Though the Civil War freed the plantations’ workforce, the impoundments remained, their rem­nants continuing to serve as ideal habitats for wild­life both on and under the water. Thus, though ef­forts to continue growing rice failed and the land held little economic value as the twentieth century rolled around, owners of large tracts either retained their property or sold it, often to wealthy buyers from the north who sought warm winters and beautiful sur­roundings amid a hunting and fishing paradise.

These owners—people like the Dodges, Pratts, and DuPonts—cared for the land, changing virtually noth­ing in a landscape where commercial and recreational fishing, hunting, and farming had been dominant. Two families, however—the Lanes of Charleston and the Donnelleys of Chicago—assumed early leadership in a land conservation movement that eventually be­came the ACE Basin Project. These extended families embraced conservation easements as the primary tool for saving critical ecosystems from unbridled develop­ment. By placing his or her land under an easement, the owner agreed to an arrangement that in exchange for tax advantages protected the land for its tradition­al uses in perpetuity, even when ownership changed. Hugh Lane, Sr., and Gaylord Donnelley were held in such high regard as businessmen and civic leaders that their decisions to place their land under easements and their championing of environmental causes led to the protection of scores of tracts by private landown­ers. Thus was born a heretofore unheard of conserva­tion team that brought together the combined efforts of individual stakeholders, governmental organiza­tions like the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and The National Fish and Wildlife Service, and non-governmental groups like Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy, and The Edisto Island Open Land Trust.

The leaders of these groups formed the ACE Basin Task Force that continues to promote land protection and the well-being of existing easements. Though the group began their work thinking their goal to conserve 90,000 acres was ambitious, by November 2010, more than 206,000 acres were protected forever. Early fears of governmental land grabs have evaporated as thou­sands of outdoor enthusiasts visit the Basin each year and as the citizens of the area have realized the eco­nomic benefits of this bold project. Still, the region has many poor citizens for whom much needs to be done to enhance farming and the growth and use of timber, but the efforts underway and the benefits that may result will be carried out in an environment where a covenant between humans and the natural world is the paramount principle. Michael Prevost, who was present at the outset of this conservation movement, speaks with a quiet passion about his involvement in this magnificent region toward the end of the docu­mentary:

It’s something I’ve always believed in, it’s something I’ve always had a vision for, and something I’ve always sought to do, to think collectively and broadly about large-scale land conservation and focusing on critical coastal habitats, both from a recreational standpoint and leaving a lasting legacy for future genera­tions, not only for their quality of life but the health of the planet and what it means to the state of South Carolina.

The Making of Common Ground

Shortly before his death in 2008, Dr. Strachan Don­nelley—founder of the Center for Human and Nature and son of the Donnelleys who contributed so much to habitat protection in the ACE Basin—asked that a his­tory of the ACE Basin Project be written. For some rea­son—perhaps because I was not at the gathering where he posed this request—I was assigned the task, my ra­tionale for completing this story as a first-person nar­rative. I began the project, like most tyros, by reading all I could gather about the region: its natural history and human history, as well as the physical and spiritu­al sustenance generations of the region’s citizens had drawn from an ecosystem where tidal rivers, wetlands, timber stands, and wildlife were abundant. What I dis­covered was that people I personally knew and others I had heard about had for years devoted their time, talent, and wherewithal to protecting this ecological wonder from the predations of commercial ventures, endeavors that would eventually have destroyed this environmental jewel in the coastline’s crown. What I discovered, too, after visiting the ACE Basin and watching videotape of early interviews with environ­mental leaders in the Basin, was that the story might best be told and reach a larger audience if it were presented as a documentary film, rather than as a mono­graph that, however good or bad, might not reach a wide readership.

Through the School of the Environment at the University of South Carolina, I secured for CHN the services of the University’s Media Service Center, whose members’ artis­tic and technical talents were my manna in a cin­ematic wilder­ness, for without the experience and skills of director Larry Cameron and photogra­pher and editor Joe Woodard, Common Ground could not have been produced. For two years, sometimes as a trio and sometimes accompanied by other media savvy colleagues, we made regular trips to the ACE Basin, where we photographed the confluence of land and water, where natural beauty is the norm and life flourishes in a glorious interdependence. We shivered at times along river banks in the minutes before dawn but forgot the cold when the sun rose over the Atlantic, the wetlands, and the mystic mists rising from the wa­ter. We battled on through a Lowcountry August when ravenous insects, intoxicated by the taste of our puny repellents, gorged on our blood while we waited for a heron to take flight or an eagle to peer out of a nest high above us.

And we met the people of the ACE Basin, who in­vited us into their homes and guided us through their fields as they poured out their accounts of their attach­ment to the land. We interviewed members of private conservation groups and a host of government em­ployees who told us the details of the real estate trans­actions that had resulted in easements even as they ar­ranged for boats and guides to carry us to areas often inaccessible to most visitors. I’ll risk the charge of regional chau­vinism by claim­ing that we were bathed in tradi­tional southern hospitality, but the help we re­ceived emerged from something deeper than a quaint regional trait, for it came from the pride and love the people have for the land and their desire to share the glory of their home. In their sharing of their best with us, they in­spired us to give our best to telling viewers about their covenant with the land.


Common Ground: South Carolina’s ACE Basin will make its Charleston premier at the Southeaster Wildlife Exposition on February 18–20, 2011. While other venues are being considered, the film will eventually be available from The Center for Humans and Nature (

  • William K. Bailey

    William Bailey, senior program associate for USC’s School of the Environment and the Center for Humans and Nature, was the writer and executive producer of the documentary Common Ground that includes dazzling photography of the ACE Basin’s ecological splendor.

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