Clearing for a new highway through prime bear country has begun in the Myrtle Beach area, but environmentalists moved quickly Tuesday to halt the work that they say needlessly imperils black bears and their habitat.
Two of the state’s most prominent conservation groups challenged the project in court, asking an administrative law judge to prevent work on the road until a legal appeal can be heard. The S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the S.C. Wildlife Federation contend that the road would be built with little regard for the landscape and black bears that live in the area.
Both groups are involved in a bitter fight with Horry County officials, who say the road between Myrtle Beach and Conway is vital to move traffic along the Grand Strand. The dispute is of statewide interest because Myrtle Beach has some of the most clogged roads in South Carolina, but the area just west of town also is a haven for black bears.
Work began on the International Drive project this past weekend. The road, projected to cost about $16 million, skirts a state nature preserve near U.S. 501. The preserve is filled with thick wetlands that attract black bears seeking food and shelter.
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Amy Armstrong, a lawyer representing the conservation league and wildlife federation, said stopping work is vital until her case can be heard by the state Court of Appeals. Otherwise, the project could be built before the facts are aired, she said. The five-lane road would slice through more than 20 acres of wetlands.
“Once the damage is done, there is nothing you can do about it,’’ said Armstrong, with the nonprofit S.C. Environmental Law Project.
The question now is how long it takes Administrative Law Judge Ralph King Anderson III to decide whether to halt the project. Anderson approved state environmental permits for the project in July. Armstrong is appealing his decision to the state Court of Appeals.
Work crews began clearing trees and vegetation over the weekend. Horry County officials told The Sun News that they saw no reason to delay construction of the road because they won the most recent court challenge. Some Horry County Council members posed for pictures next to bulldozers Monday, the newspaper reported.
“There are always risks, but this is certainly an acceptable risk we are willing to take,” Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said in a statement.
County Councilman Paul Prince said International Drive is needed to help relieve traffic congestion.
“It’s long overdue and I sure am glad they are out there starting work on it,’’ Prince told The State newspaper. “I’m an animal lover. I don’t want to get rid of bears. But .... that area is eventually going to get more and more people. I don’t know that bears are going to survive in that area with the hundreds and thousands of new homes to be built.’’
At issue in the dispute is whether Horry County should spend an extra $3 million installing culverts beneath International Drive so that bears can pass from one side of the road to the other without being struck by cars. Environmentalists say the culverts should be included.
Black bears, typically shy and elusive creatures, are not endangered in South Carolina, but they also are not common. One of the largest populations of black bears in South Carolina is along the northern coast, much of it in the Myrtle Beach area near the state-owned Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve. The largest population is in the mountains.