SCDNR’s Heritage Trust program protects valuable habitats all around the Palmetto State, including places that some extremely rare plants call home.
Text by David Lucas. Photos by Mac Stone, Naturaland Trust.
If you take the time to read South Carolina’s State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP), a lengthy report prepared by South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) biologists and land managers that documents species in South Carolina most in need of conservation or protection and lays out strategies for doing so, you’ll find out that in addition to the 493 animals in need of special protections in our state, there are also 325 plant species, some of which are every bit as rare as more well-known imperiled critters such as the red-cockaded woodpecker or the loggerhead sea turtle.
Endangered animals draw a lot of attention from the public, but animal species don’t exist in a vacuum, and many of the unique habitats that exist across South Carolina’s landscape – quite literally “from the mountains to the sea” – are themselves wonders of biodiversity. There are an estimated 2,795 vascular plant species native to our state. Not to mention several hundred more lichens, algae, mosses, and liverworts. Scientists believe that about 15 percent of those native vascular plants are at risk – from threats like increasing development/loss of habitat, pollution, competition from non-native invasive species and a changing climate.
That’s the bad news. The good news is this: two of those plant species that are among the most at-risk just got a huge boost from a (relatively) small addition of approximately 53 acres in the state’s Upper Piedmont Region north of Greenville to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ Heritage Trust Lands program. That’s where, along the small streams and seepage bogs that make up the headwaters of the Enoree and Tyger River watersheds, you’ll find both the bunched Arrowhead (Sagittaria fasciculata) – Federally Endangered and a SWAP species of highest priority, and the dwarf-flowered heartleaf (Hexastylis naniflora) – Federally Threatened; and a SWAP highest-priority species.
The “McKinney Tract,” as it’s known, is especially key for the long-term survival of bunched arrowhead. In fact, it’s one of the very few places on earth that the plant is known to exist in the wild. Bunched arrowhead is only known to grow in Greenville County and at a limited number of sites in nearby Henderson and Buncombe counties in North Carolina. In South Carolina, bunched arrowhead is restricted to the upper reaches of the Enoree, Reedy, Tyger, and Clear Creek drainages, all within a 5-mile radius of Travelers Rest, a fast-growing suburb of Greenville. The Enoree River bunched arrowhead population is considered to be the center of its distribution, and the recovery plan for the species has long-called for the protection of a minimum of eight colonies within the Enoree River population in order to ensure the continued survival of the species. The SCDNR, working with a number of partners, including Naturaland Trust, has been successful in protecting some key properties in this region over the years.
Anchored by Bunched Arrowhead Heritage Preserve in the middle, with Belvue Springs Heritage Preserve a short distance to the north and Blackwell Heritage Preserve to the south, this area outside Traveler’s Rest is an important sanctuary for these plants. It’s also an area that is experiencieng tremendous population growth and development, which must be balanced with conservation efforts. In addition to the SCDNR-designated Heritage Preserves in the area, Naturaland Trust has protected and restored an additional 100 acres in this corridor over the last four years. The recent addition of the McKinney tract to this list of protected areas connects Bunched Arrowhead and Blackwell heritage preserves and protects a significant colony of plants that SCDNR biologists have estimated at between 750-1000 specimens. Connectivity between colonies is considered critical for normal gene flow and will support the hydrological integrity of the sensitive Piedmont seepage areas – the only habitat in which bunched arrowhead will grow. In addition, the property supports dwarf-flowered heartleaf colonies as well. As recently as 2017, the property was being prepared for development, and, as outlined in the grant proposal submitted to the USFWS for funding to purchase the tract, that outcome would have proven disastrous for the seepage forest habitat located there.
From the grant proposal: “The primary factor determining the rarity of bunched arrowhead is the rarity of the habitat in which it occurs. Increased impervious surface (roofs, cement, paved roads) associated with land development can alter water flow by creating increased surface water runoff, altering water flow paths, and depleting groundwater recharge. Increased runoff may deliver too much water and sediment to bunched arrowhead habitat. Likewise, a decline in the water table due to altered flow paths can potentially result in water-level reductions in the springs and seeps inhabited by bunched arrowhead Additionally, these seeps have relatively small drainage areas and short flow paths which provide limited time for herbicides and fertilizers to break down before entering the bunched arrowhead habitat. Siltation associated with runoff alters the soil and slows water flow altering the wetland habitat and allowing competing vegetation to establish in these sites. Unfortunately, attempts to reestablish bunched arrowhead in locations where it has been previously lost have been unsuccessful.”
But with the help of a $5,000 matching grant donation from Naturaland Trust and additional financial support from the S.C. Heritage Trust fund, SCDNR was able to successfully apply for and receive an “Endangered Species Recovery Land Acquisition (RLA) Grant” from the USFWS. This grant program, which “provides funding to States and Territories for the acquisition of threatened and endangered species habitat in support of approved and draft species recovery plans,” is authorized through Section 6 of the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Compared to some of the vast and more well-known protected properties in the region such as the Jocassee Gorges, the McKinney tract may seem tiny by comparison, but it will provide a vital link in the chain of protection that allows these rare habitats and threatened plants to continue surviving in the 21st Century.
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