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Boston Red Sox owner left land to protect ducks. But hunters want to shoot them

The Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center near Georgetown, S.C. was left to the state as a sanctuary for birds and other animals in the will of the late Boston Red Sox owner, who died in the mid 1970s.
The Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center near Georgetown, S.C. was left to the state as a sanctuary for birds and other animals in the will of the late Boston Red Sox owner, who died in the mid 1970s.

When Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey died in 1976, he left three large coastal islands to the state of South Carolina for protection as a wildlife sanctuary, free of hunting and the disruptions caused by sportsmen.

Now, a little known plan in the state Legislature would allow hunting on part of the Yawkey Wildlife Center, a 20,000-acre complex of islands, marshes and maritime forests near Georgetown that make up one of the most significant nature preserves in South Carolina.

The change would be a big deal, because if approved by the Legislature in the state budget, it could drive away thousands of ducks, ruin world-renowned alligator research — and, ultimately, cause the state to lose control of a natural area it has managed since the baseball club owner’s death, say critics of the budget plan.

“It is a bad idea,’’ said Phil Wilkinson, a Georgetown alligator researcher who managed the property for Yawkey before the state took control. “Hunters could go in there and blow that place apart. Mr. Yawkey managed and gave it as a gift to the state of South Carolina, but it had to be protected.’’

Yawkey’s will left the land to South Carolina, but only as long as the state complied with conditions of the will. Those conditions specifically banned hunting, and designated one island a wilderness area, where “no activities detrimental to its primitive wilderness character shall be permitted,’’ according to the will.

If the state ever breached that agreement, the property would revert to a New England trust that he set up in his will to oversee how the property is managed. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources manages the land.

“That would devastate us’’ if the DNR lost the land, agency director Alvin Taylor said. “Yawkey is one of our crown jewels. We take a lot of pride in management there.’’

Taylor said he hopes concerns about hunting on the land can be resolved through a series of meetings that include Yawkey Trust officials.

State Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, a Georgetown Republican who is pushing to allow some hunting on the preserve, said critics are raising undue alarms.

He met with a top DNR official Tuesday afternoon and was told the agency would allow some hunting and fishing on the lower end of a creek system, near the Santee River, if the Yawkey Foundation approved it. Goldfinch said limited hunting and fishing in that area would not have a big impact on wildlife at the Yawkey Center.

Goldfinch said he’ll continue to push his legislative plan until the DNR follows through on those plans. He argues that the DNR allowed some hunting and fishing in that area years ago, only to close it off — a point former DNR officials dispute.

“I’ve never in my life heard of a state agency getting permission from a private foundation’’ to make a decision about use of public property, Goldfinch said. “If they feel the need to go to Yawkey and get the blessing from Yawkey, I hope they do it in the very near future. I’m ready to act on it.’’

Efforts by The State to reach the Yawkey Trust this week were unsuccessful. But Wilkinson and others familiar with the issue said they doubt the trust members would welcome hunting on the land.

The Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center is among a string of wildlife refuges between Georgetown and Charleston left to the state decades ago by wealthy northern landowners.

The Yawkey refuge includes 12 miles of pristine beaches on North and South islands, which attract nesting loggerhead sea turtles. The preserve also includes managed rice fields that attract up to 30,000 ducks each winter; deep woodlands with underbrush so thick it is difficult for anyone to walk through; some of the northernmost Palmetto forests in South Carolina; a handful of historic buildings; and the state’s oldest working lighthouse. At least 200 species of birds, including bald eagles and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, are found on the preserve.

Yawkey used the property as hunting land for himself and his friends, including legendary baseball players Ty Cobb and Lefty Grove. But Yawkey later decided that hunting should be curtailed and spelled that out in his will. At the time of Yawkey’s death, he had not hunted the property in years, Wilkinson said.

Through the decades, the property has attracted scores of scientists to conduct research on wildlife. Weekly public bus tours also are allowed.

A key concern to Wilkinson is the decades of alligator research conducted there. The area that would be open to hunting under Goldfinch’s legislative proposal, Mosquito Creek, contains some of the oldest and most studied alligators on the Yawkey Wildlife Center. Allowing hunting could allow sportsmen to shoot those gators, Wilkinson said. Mosquito Creek also is near vast areas filled with ducks that would be killed or leave the area if hunters start firing guns, others said.

Bob Joyner, a former manager of the Yawkey center for the DNR, said allowing hunting anywhere on the refuge would defeat its purpose: to give ducks and other animals a place of refuge, where populations could recover from hunting nearby. The Yawkey Center is surrounded by duck hunting grounds.

“It would render the area as a refuge non-functional,’’ Joyner said. “They need some area of refuge to get away from the guns.’’

The plan, included as a proviso in the state budget, would bar the S.C. Department of Natural Resources from enforcing a “sanctuary agreement” that prevents hunting or fishing on navigable waters, or those accessible by boat. Navigable waters in South Carolina are publicly owned. The proviso is not final because the Legislature has not approved the budget.

Goldfinch said the proviso — which is good for one year and would have to be renewed next year — focuses on the Yawkey preserve. He said he regularly receives complaints from hunters that he said are prohibited from using the Mosquito Creek area. The Mosquito Creek area includes public water that people are free to use, so why should the state ban them from hunting from boats? Goldfinch asked. Goldfinch said the state DNR has expanded its authority into the Mosquito Creek area, a charge the agency denies.

He said he’s not overly worried about the Yawkey Foundation’s concerns.

“I want to be a good partner with Yawkey (foundation members) and want to keep them informed of what we are doing, ,’’ he said, ‘’but they are not our boss. Mr. Yawkey has been dead a long time. And from the grave, I’m not sure he should be dictating what the public does from public land and with public waters. That gives me real heartburn.’’

The DNR’s Taylor said the issue needs to be resolved because the Yawkey center is special to South Carolina.

“You don’t find these places very often,’’ Taylor said. “We love it so.’’

Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment for more than 20 years at The State. He writes about an array of environmental subjects, including nature, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.