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More than 5,000 acres of Jasper County land, including seven miles of floodplain forest fronting the Savannah River, have gained protection as part of a conservation easement between a Georgia landowner and The Nature Conservancy.
"The Savannah River is the source of drinking water for the people who live in Hilton Head, Bluffton, and all of Beaufort and Jasper counties," said Eric Krueger, director of science and stewardship at the Conservancy, in a statement.
The water intake is downriver of the newly preserved area, and that bodes well for consumers, he said.
"It's been well documented that keeping land along rivers undeveloped reduces the occurrence of polluted runoff and protects water quality," said Krueger.
"This conservation easement does that."
A spokeswoman for the Nature Conservancy declined to give the price paid for the easement but said landowner, William Exley of Rincon, Ga., accepted an amount far below the land's value.
The 5,068 acres have been included in The Savannah River Preserve, a 2006 initiative started by local landowners, conservation groups, and natural resource government agencies.
"The beauty is that I still own my property," Exley said as part of the easement announcement.
"With this easement, The Nature Conservancy will safeguard my land's conservation values in perpetuity. They will monitor and defend my easement so the land won't be compromised, and that makes me feel good.
Land-protection deals have come under debate in the state legislature. Some lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to spare the S.C. Conservation Bank from having its funding eliminated when half the state agencies faced reductions.
A bill introduced by Democratic gubernatorial nominee Sen. Vincent Sheheen to protect conservation easements from condemnation in certain circumstances also fell short. During committee work on the bill, S. 1075, some lawmakers said environmentalists might seek easements in advance of road construction projects as a way to thwart development.
But advocates of the easements say they are optimistic because two of their fiercest opponents have now left office. Rep. Annette Young, R-Summerville, who retired this year, and Rep. Skipper Perry, an Aiken Republican, who retired in 2008.
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