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S.C. Rice Kingdom Revealed Using LIDAR

The annual Southeastern Wildlife Exposition is well known for their original sporting art displays each year. The wildlife art is a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts, and a series of lectures at the Garden and Gun magazine allows for deeper discussion into the realm of hunting and conservation. A panel of speakers from Nemours Wildlife Foundation, Ducks Unlimited and the Lowcountry Land Trust talked about the history of the sporting landscape. Rice culture in the coastal plain began in the 1600’s and while some rice fields have been reclaimed by forest growth, a new modern mapping tool recently revealed a clearer picture of these inland fields.
Travis Folk from Folk Land Management in Green Pond served as moderator and introduced the panel. Mike McShane is an at-large board member with Ducks Unlimited, Ashley Demosthenes is Director of Lowcountry Land Trust, Daniel Hanks is a doctoral fellow at Clemson and Ernie Wiggers is Chief Biologist at Nemours Wildlife Foundation.
“The S.C. Rice Kingdom took shape in the band of water along the coast that has both a freshwater component and a tidal influence,” said Folk. “Rice culture was huge and at its peak, inland fields were created by clearing woods, but over time those fields grew back in. The subsequent canopy of trees and scrub growth left us unable to identify all of the rice fields using conventional surveying. Clemson became involved using the brand new LYDAR mapping technique with student Richard Coen visiting the sites identified by airplane transects.”
“LIDAR stands for light-ranging and detection radar,” said Hanks. “The earthen infrastructure built by slave labor is still in place at the inland fields. The overgrowth doesn’t allow for the human eye to detect them, but LYDAR can detect the lower elevation of the inland field. The result is a large jump in the estimate of total historical rice production acreage in S.C. from 150,000-acres up to 274,331-acres.”
“Duck hunting enthusiasts kept the rice fields in a working state long after the rice market collapsed,” said McShane. “This hunting heritage is largely what kept the larger plantations intact, giving way to modern conservation practices today that led to the formation of the ACE Basin. In 1989 President H.W. Bush signed the North American Wetlands Conservation Act allowing federal funds to match private sector conservation dollars. Along the Atlantic seaboard, South Carolina is one of the leaders in NAWCA funding partly due to the high quality of coastal plain habitat.”
“Private landowners are leaving a legacy for future generations by donating conservation easements on their holdings,” said Demosthenes. “Even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has come to understand the value to all wildlife for these impoundments to stay intact. Dikes require constant monitoring, including timely repairs after hurricanes, and the Corps shortened its permit process for this work considerably.”
“At Nemours Wildlife Foundation we manage our tidal impoundments for all species by varying the water levels,” said Wiggers. “Shallow water is great for attracting waterfowl, but a thin layer of sheet water is best for shorebirds. We might take a bald eagle sighting for granted today but there was a time when the bald eagle population in S.C. was in steep decline. History records that 12 of those last few successful bald eagle nests were located at historic rice fields that allowed them to feed heavily on fish and thus avoid the pesticide issues facing avian life. The habitat must look good to other birds too because we now have wood storks, roseate spoonbills, and swallow-tailed kites that frequent these sites.”
A guest at the lecture stated he was a duck hunter visiting from California, and that they were facing changes in culture there due to restrictions on prescribed fire and on water used to flood fields. The Atlantic Flyway may face changes from sea level rise and increased saltwater intrusion in the future, and each of the panel members stated that habitat managers will take a wait and see approach. It could be that newly mapped inland fields could be valuable habitat if reclaimed, especially if they offer a freshwater ecosystem. Native grasses in freshwater fields produce lots of seeds that waterfowl will seek out.
The latest agreement to fund the federal government includes $42 million dollars for NAWCA. The NAWCA bill is also up for reauthorization in the U.S. Senate and conservationists, including duck hunters and bird watchers, should contact Tim Scott and Lindsay Graham and tell them that South Carolina voters support those efforts. Everything from air quality to wildlife diversity improves with high quality habitat, and the S.C. Rice Kingdom should continue to produce good results for the coastal plain ecosystem far into the future.

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at LowcountryOutdoors.com

Jeff Dennis, Contributor (360 Posts)

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com