Estill, South Carolina — The descendants of John Winthrop, founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony nearly 400 years ago, recently set aside 14,000 acres along the Savannah River that will forever remain undeveloped. It's the largest private conservation easement in South Carolina history.

Its significance, though, goes well beyond the creation of a natural bulwark against overdevelopment and forest loss.

A bevy of private, commercial, nonprofit and government donors, including the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, cobbled together the $12.2 million deal — with the Winthrop family donating 70 percent of the easement's cost. Timber harvesting, hunting and fishing will continue on the property, known as Groton Plantation, to the benefit of the local economy. And the 13,868-acre tract of swampy hardwoods and upland pines fills a major hole in an under-construction, 100-mile corridor along the Savannah River. Myriad threatened, endangered and at-risk species, including red-cockaded woodpeckers and gopher tortoises, will find safe haven.

Yet what makes this deal particularly eye-popping is its geographic reach. By protecting private property upstream, and the water that flows from the land into the Savannah River, communities far downstream benefit. The Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority, keen to lower water-treatment costs, chipped in more than a half-million dollars for the easement — and it's 50 miles from Groton. In all, five water utilities have joined the Savannah River Clean Water Fund with the goal of protecting 1.7 million river-buffering acres. Groton Plantation, and a smaller tract nearby, are the fund's first two successes.

"Most people who live in Beaufort or Bluffton might never visit this part of South Carolina in their lifetime," said David Bishop, a conservation director with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in South Carolina who helped cobble the deal together. "But clean water here is a service to them. It takes a lot of forethought to invest upstream in Allendale."

'A gorgeous piece of property'

Cypress knees rise from Groton Plantation swamp. Cypress knees rise from Groton Plantation swamp. (Photo: Dan Chapman/USFWS)

Bishop toured the lower half of Groton Plantation one recent sunny afternoon, through the quail and deer "courses," across the cypress-kneed swamp and along an oak-filled bend in the Savannah River. A bald eagle was spooked from its nest. An alligator splashed from a log into the swamp. A massive turtle slid into the river. The Winthrop family had earlier protected 7,400 of these acres along the Savannah via a conservation easement donated to the Conservancy.

"The family has a long history of conservation," said Frank Range, a family friend and plantation business manager who joined the tour. "It's a gorgeous piece of property and the family has taken good care of it over the years."

John Winthrop left his family's English country estate, Groton Manor, in 1630 for the New World. En route, he penned his famous "city on the hill" sermon describing a civic and communal ideal for the Massachusetts colonists. Winthrop was elected governor 12 times and served as something of a father figure, moral exemplar and political lodestar for the burgeoning colonial population. His descendants have succeeded in government, science and business.

The Winthrop family bought Old Greenwood, a plantation established before the Revolutionary War, in 1906. Farming and logging continued, though hunting became the family passion. Quail hunts are reserved for Winthrop family and friends; deer, turkey and hog hunts are open to moneyed guests.

Range, earlier in the day, drove Groton's uplands via a tricked-out Jeep Wrangler with padded benches, dog kennels and shotgun holders. First stop: the family hunt club with a half-dozen shingled cabins. Black-and-white pictures of old Groton (pronounced "grow-tun") hunts, along with mounted deer, foxes, bobcats, otters and turkeys, line wood-paneled walls. There's another hunt club, Oakland Hall (circa 1834), with a twin-chimneyed big house and whitewashed cabins on a ridge overlooking a pond. Sprinkled across the plantation are decrepit sharecropper shacks and old cemeteries that were segregated by race.

Martin family cemetery, Groton Plantation, South Carolina The Martin family cemetery at Groton Plantation. (Photo: Dan Chapman/USFWS)

The hilly uplands mix longleaf, loblolly and hardwoods with fields of sorghum and soybean as food for quail and deer. Two-thirds of Groton's upland is burned annually to foster longleaf and restore the undergrowth favored by quail and woodpeckers. Pepper Hill, the plantation's high point, conjures a pristine savannah with wiregrass and other sedges carpeting the ground between longleaf pines. Range listed a slew of birds, endangered and otherwise, that frequent Groton: painted buntings, bald eagles, anhingas, blue herons, ospreys. A voluntary Safe Harbor agreement between Groton and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protects the population of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, currently estimated at 55 clusters.

"It certainly makes our job easier knowing that high-quality habitat for many of our priority species will forever be protected," said Jason Ayers, a Service biologist in Charleston.

'Protecting the source of the water'

The river, though, is under siege. Water quality suffers from agricultural runoff and the 50 or so industrial and municipal users permitted to dump into the Savannah River between Augusta and Savannah. In 2014, an environmental nonprofit listed the Savannah as the nation's third most toxic river. The Savannah River Site, 20 miles north of Groton, is a Superfund site with a history of toxic leaks. The ongoing deepening of the river to allow ever-larger container ships to reach the port of Savannah pushes salt water further upstream. The Floridan aquifer, the main water source for coastal Georgia, is increasingly salty, prompting towns in Georgia and South Carolina to rely more on the river. Meanwhile, Savannah, Hilton Head, Beaufort and other coastal towns grow and demand more from the river.

"The Lower Savannah," a report by TNC states, "is at a critical juncture. But "there is still time to protect the rural landscape that maintains the water quality essential to so many human and natural community needs."

The report bolsters the work of the Clean Water Fund, created in 2014, to seek watershed-wide solutions to river quality and quantity. The middle and lower Savannah River watershed stretches across 2.8 million acres from Thurmond Dam, above Augusta, to the Atlantic coast. More than three-fourths is forested, both privately and publicly owned, and worthy of long-term conservation to ensure that the water that flows onto, through and below that land remains clean before it reaches the river. Healthy forests filter pollutants that might end up in the river. TNC and the Fund estimate another million forested acres must be protected to keep the Savannah relatively clean — and water-treatment costs in check.

"Whatever you can preserve upstream is going to have beneficial impacts downstream," said Joe Mantua, general manager of the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority. The utility pumped more than $500,000 into the Groton deal. "Usually, utilities are focused on spending money on technology and processes that are implemented at the intake. But there's so much value in protecting the source of the water and what eventually comes to the plant."

So-called "preemptive land protection," or "strategic forest management," on a large scale remains relatively rare. New York City has invested $1.5 billion in a watershed protection plan since the late 1990s and, so far, has avoided spending $10 billion on a water-filtration plant.

"It's an excellent idea. More emphasis should be put on protecting source water. It's far more economical in the long run," said Tonya Bonitatibus who runs the nonprofit Savannah Riverkeeper from Augusta. "Even though you're protecting water quality on private land, the conservation helps everybody who uses the river and protects fisheries. You can't do meaningful, long term conservation without private interests and commercial interests involved."

'What the world used to look like'

Stuart Atkinson crossed Clear Water Creek and headed further into the swamp past a large cut-over field and thickets of oak and pine buffering the slow-moving Savannah. Twenty-four miles of winding river frontage will be protected as part of the easement deal.

"Groton showcases what the world used to look like," said Atkinson, the plantation manager. "This is the gold standard for maximizing habitat. But it comes at a cost to the landowner. They can make more money growing pine trees."

Stuart Atkinson, Frank Range and David Bishop at Groton Plantation Stuart Atkinson (from left) and Frank Range get a tour of the property from David Bishop of The Nature Conservancy. (Photo: Dan Chapman/USFWS)

A slew of conservation nonprofits, including TNC, the Clean Water Fund, the South Carolina Conservation Bank and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, raised $3.5 million to defray the costs of the conservation easement. Private foundations and corporate donors, including Walmart and International Paper, channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars through the conservation groups.

The easement allows the Groton Plantation to continue hunting, fishing, farming and logging the property. In addition to a hefty tax break, a handful of houses or barns may be built on a 900-acre swath of high ground as long as it doesn't impact water quality. TNC must sign off on any construction. Range, the business manager, says the easement "pretty severely limits" development. And the benefits to wildlife and water quality extend well beyond the plantation, a key piece in a burgeoning conservation corridor that runs from North Augusta to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.

"Groton was a big hole in the center of the corridor," said the TNC's Bishop as the tour ended. "In the future, river systems will become really critical as climate corridors and allow deer, turkey, endangered species and plants to shift further and further inland. The land linkages are there. The opportunity is there too."

Dan Chapman is a public affairs specialist with the Southeast Region of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

A huge swath of South Carolina land is now preserved for generations
Roughly 14,000 acres along the Savannah River will forever remain undeveloped, thanks to this conservation team work.