Company’s investment helps developers, wetlands and the Waccamaw River

A Pawleys Island company is turning an investment it made in an old pine plantation in the Longs area of Horry County into an investment in the Waccamaw River.

The company, American Timberlands, already has a Charleston company restoring some of the approximately 3,300 acres to wetland, which it will then sell as mitigation credits to offset damage done to wetlands in development.

Part of the land, 1,304 acres, has been donated to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to be part of the Waccamaw River Heritage Preserve, which already has more than 5,000 acres along the river.

The company has retained the right to market the credits on the land it donated. Most of the rest of the acreage will sit idle as restoration begins naturally and likely will be further restored and marketed as credits in seven or eight years.

The U.S. Clean Water Act mandates that there be no net loss of wetlands, so those impacted by highway or other development must be mitigated by the purchase of wetlands elsewhere that will be permanently protected.

Approximately 200 acres of the overall land near S.C. 905 is not part of the restoration/mitigation effort and could potentially be developed in other ways.

Tom Rowland, CEO of American Timberlands, said this is the first mitigation bank the company has established on 75,000 acres it owns in South and North Carolina.

A second is planned on 10,000 acres it is acquiring in Georgia, and Rowland said he believes that effort will be quicker because of the care and time the company and state and federal agencies spent on the Waccamaw bank, officially known as the Carter Stilley Wetland and Stream Mitigation Bank.

Waccamaw Riverkeeper Paula Reidharr said the addition of more than 1,000 acres to the protected lands along the Waccamaw will help to keep pollution from the river, but it will also expand the area where wildlife can thrive.

“We’re always happy with any amount,” she said, “and that’s a pretty significant amount.”

Bob Perry, director of environmental programs for DNR, said the presence of the bank can aid economic development by giving businesses and others ready mitigation for wetlands that are impacted by factory and highway construction, for instance.

In addition to wetland mitigation, the bank will be the first in South Carolina to offer coastal stream credits. The restoration work will create 6,810 feet of restored, enhanced and preserved wetlands and streams, according to DNR.

Perry emphasized that the Carter Stilley Bank is made up of high-quality wetlands, a factor that will be important when high-quality wetlands are impacted by development.

He said that the number of credits needed to mitigate a loss depends on many factors, including the quality of the bank’s wetlands, where they are located and a functional assessment of the land.

Regulations say that the first choice in mitigation is that credits be purchased in the same watershed as the losses.

Rowland said that unlike a traditional timber company, American Timberlands looks very carefully at the land it buys to determine its potential in a number of areas.

The Carter Stilley land, for instance, was part of 20,000 acres the company bought in Horry County in 2008, another piece of which has become a hunting club near Conway. Sixty acres of a tract the company bought near Aiken was put to equestrian use.

“The bottom line is we’re in the business of returning investments on timberland,” he said.

Rowland’s statement is underscored by the description on the company’s website of land near Savannah \known as Red Bluff Plantation. The description said the 6,400 acres has potential for luxury residential and/or resort development, event rentals, guided hunting and significant conservation value.

American Timberlands expects the return on its investments will be in the low teens, a goal Rowland said it has consistently exceeded since the company’s founding in 2004.

He said the effort with the Carter Stilley land was a public-private collaboration that not only involved American Timberlands, but government agencies such as DNR, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Perry said he’s heard the company eventually may convert the remainder of the Carter Stilley property for environmental mitigations.

If that happens, he said, DNR likely will be willing to play the role of the land’s steward.