Adapting, thriving and evolving

Lake Conestee Nature Park celebrates 10 years as a sanctuary exceeding the expectations of its toxic past

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A mile of boardwalks keeps Lake Conestee Nature Park accessible for everyone. // Photograph by Laura Height

We are standing smack-dab in the middle of Greenville County — 2 miles from I-85, surrounded by more than half a million people within a 30-minute drive. And yet, no noise blocks out the calls of some of the 207 distinct species of birds, the splashing water play of a gaggle of Canada Geese or the rustling of an October breeze blowing across 402 acres of wildlife sanctuary.

But before you get a bucolic, National Geographic nature picture in your mind’s eye, know that we are also surrounded by a toxic soup of PCBs, metals, DDT and all the residue of Greenville’s industrial past.

The Lake Conestee Nature Park, which celebrated its 10th year of operation last week, is a dichotomy. Dave Hargett, executive director of the Conestee Foundation and the park, describes it as a “monitored natural recovery site,” a contaminated area where nature is making a comeback. “It is,” Hargett says, “a story of evolution – what has evolved and what is evolving.”

Technically, the park is one of 450,000 areas in the country classified as a brownfield site by the EPA, meaning redevelopment or reuse is “complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant.” Years of environmental studies found “a lot of contamination, but the good news is that it wasn’t going anywhere,” Hargett says. The pollutants are the kind that “glom onto sediment” and stay there, “so long as we don’t stir it up,” he adds.

The nature park is 402 acres, surrounded by another 400 acres of open space owned by ReWa and the city. Today only remnants of the 150-acre Lake Conestee remain, and the area has evolved into more of a wetland and what Hargett describes as a “bottomland forest.”

While monitoring the evolution of the area and allowing nature to take its course, the park has also developed into an education center. There are 30 learning stations throughout the area that tell both the natural story and the human history. The stations are situated along three “learning loops,” each about a 1-mile walk. A fourth loop with 10 more stations is in the works.

Since the education program kicked off in 2013, more than 5,000 school kids have visited the park. Students from Furman, Wofford and Clemson also use the park for advanced study. It is here that the Hargett and the Conestee Foundation see the future of the park. Looking down the winding banks of the Reedy, Hargett points out the site he envisions for a “nature center” that will serve as the park’s headquarters, as well as an education facility with classrooms and event space. Anticipating a cost of more than $1 million followed by a year to build, Hargett sees a significant expansion of educational efforts including after-school and evening programs.

The price tag is high for an organization that operates on a tight budget and depends heavily on the generosity of donors and corporate sponsors, the availability of grants and stipends from the city. The unrestricted annual budget is $200,000. The staff, including Hargett, is a lean group of five part-time employees.

“Since our inception in 1999, we’ve raised about $10 million,” Hargett says, “but we’ve got a lot to show for what we have invested here.”

And so they have.

In 2009, the park received the designation of an “Important Bird Area of Global Significance” from the Audubon Society. With its 207 species of birds, including one of the largest concentrations of “overwintering” rusty blackbirds in the U.S., the site surpasses Congaree National Park, which can claim only 202 species over 23,000 acres. The “rusties” are not endangered, but they are threatened, declining in number by more than 80 percent over the past 40 years.

Standing on an observation platform overlooking the West Bay, Hargett points out six to seven Great Blue Heron nests in a copse of Green Ash trees. But nearby there’s a row of those same trees that are dying. “They are drowning,” he says, noting that the industrious beaver population has built dams responsible for significantly increasing the water’s elevations. He’s not worried about them, though. “They will provide nesting cavities for the birds. Come here in the winter, and there will be lots of rusty blackbirds nesting in them,” he explains.

As he walks through the park, picking up the errant cup or wrapper, making note of areas in need of attention, Hargett also greets and occasionally stops to talk to patrons. Arthur Williams and Dave Palmer are birders, who have taken note of some changes. “It looks like the beavers have brought the lake up about a foot from the last time we were here,” remarks Williams. “It’s as high as I’ve seen it,” agrees Hargett, “except during the flood.” He points out that the park is a floodplain for the Reedy and at times will come up 7 or 8 feet under the main bridge. Capturing the Reedy’s overflow also brings some of Greenville’s garbage into the park, and there are fences set up in some areas to corral the debris and make it easier to remove.

As the birders continue on their quest for something they haven’t seen yet, Palmer leaves Hargett with a compliment: “You’ve done a wonderful, wonderful job here.”

Strolling along the riverbank, Hargett reflects on what has evolved. “This is a place that nobody wanted. In 1975, the DNR [state Department of Natural Resources] categorized the Reedy River as ‘devoid of life.’ Today, the river’s recovered, these wetlands have recovered and regulation can and has, in this case, worked.”


WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Location: 840 Mauldin Road, Greenville. There are 13 entrances to the park. Download a complete map
Hours: Sunrise to sunset, Monday–Sunday
Handicapped access: Most of the park is accessible by wheelchair with 6 miles of paved walkways and more than a mile of wide, elevated boardwalk.
Can I bring my dog: Yes, but dogs must be leashed at all times and picked up after.
How about a picnic: Lovely. There are a few picnic tables, but there are no garbage cans. The park follows the Leave No Trace principle: Pick up your debris and take it with you, and do not throw anything in the water or on the ground.
Activities allowed: More than 60,000 visitors a year walk, bike and run through the park.
Cost: Admission is free.

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