When the late Tommy Wyche got back to Greenville from a trip to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, he had one overriding goal: to prevent the mountains of the western Carolinas from falling victim to the massive development he saw in southern California.
Among his tireless efforts toward that goal was the creation of Naturaland Trust in 1973, among the first conservation trusts established in South Carolina. For the past 50 years, the trust has played a pivotal role in protecting tens of thousands of acres of mountain property from development.
One of the reasons conservationists across the region revere Wyche is the foresight with which he perceived what could happen to the ribbon of mountains along the border of South and North Carolina if development was left unchecked.
That early and clear understanding of the threat has remained central to Naturaland Trust’s mission, according to trust President Frank Holleman, and helped lead to a series of conservation successes.
Holleman said the magnitude of Wyche’s vision and efforts are hard to overstate. Vast stretches of the Palmetto State’s finite supply of mountains and valleys are now protected for generations to come. Much of that comes down to Wyche organizing and inspiring a conservation movement early enough to achieve success on such a large scale.
“During (Wyche’s) lifetime and thereafter, we have been building on that,” Holleman said. “We have added thousands and thousands of acres to this process, to this concept.”
This pattern of success has been made possible in part by Naturaland Trust’s lean and nimble structure, according to Executive Director Mac Stone. He said by keeping the trust’s staff and governing board small and tightly focused on its founding mission, it has been able to act decisively when opportunities arise.
With the legacy of success the trust has built over decades, Stone said, it can now focus on connecting and expanding the areas protected in earlier efforts.
Connecting the dots
The work of preserving the state’s mountains has proceeded in tandem with work protecting the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway, also known as state Highway 11, which runs adjacent and parallel to South Carolina’s portion of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Holleman said the highway’s designation as a scenic byway comes with no special protection. As the principal corridor along which many people first experience South Carolina’s mountains, it transects many of the landscapes that have been under threat from development throughout the trust’s 50-year history.
For example, there is a string of properties along state Highway 11 in northern Greenville and Pickens counties near the base of Caesars Head through which the South Saluda River — a popular trout-fishing destination — runs. The trust targeted the area for protection for years but was only recently able to acquire some of that land and expand public access to the river.
The same patient approach helped the trust put together properties preserving some of the last remaining habitat for two extremely rare plant species — the Oconee bell near Salem in Pickens County and bunched arrowhead near Paris Mountain in Travelers Rest.
“This is where that long view comes in,” Stone said. “It’s how we work on Highway 11 or in the bunched arrowhead area. Nobody else wants to touch these parcels because they’re islands.”
Holleman said the multigenerational approach led to another recent coup after years of waiting for the opportunity.
The trust has acquired Burrell’s Place, a relatively tiny property within Sumter National Forest in Oconee County that held the key to restoring eastern brook trout to a tributary of the Chattooga River from which the native species had been absent for more than a century.
“That’s like ‘the pink diamond of New Zealand’ rare,” Holleman said.
Naturaland Trust remains nimble
Part of the challenge is the unremitting development pressure brought by the hundreds of people and businesses moving to the region every month — a reality Tommy Wyche foresaw all those decades ago.
Another challenge is the fragmented nature of property ownership that develops over time. In Naturaland Trust’s early years, large tracts of land were fairly common. Successive years have seen many of those tracts subdivided or otherwise broken up.
While it presents challenges to the network of other conservation groups that have joined Naturaland Trust in its work, the trust is counting on its patient, methodical approach and agile structure to continue its pattern of success.
Stone said the structural agility stems from a leadership team whose members are well integrated both with their communities and their conservation partners. This means there’s often not a lot of explaining to do when a given property becomes available.
“We can act very quickly on opportunities that will be game changing for the public, game changing for the state parks, game changing for the national forest or these unique species,” he said.
The work remains vital to, and underappreciated by, the wider community, Holleman added.
“Naturaland Trust is the most important community institution people don’t know that much about,” he said.
Thomas “Tommy” Wyche was an avid outdoorsman but did not confine his interests or talents to conservation work alone.
In conjunction with founding Naturaland Trust in 1973, which joined Beaufort County’s Open Land Trust (founded in 1971) as one of the Southeast’s oldest conservation trusts, Wyche was among the visionaries who helped revitalize downtown Greenville.
The Greenville landmarks he had a major role in creating or preserving include:
- The Hyatt Regency on North Main Street
- The Peace Center
- The Bon Secours Wellness Arena
- Heritage Green
An attorney by profession, Wyche was also a musician and author who worked as a powerful champion for the arts in Greenville.
Naturaland Trust by the numbers
The trust has been instrumental in protecting more than 100,000 acres of land since its inception in 1973.
Several major public parks were created directly from that work, including:
- Caesars Head State Park
- Jones Gap State Park
- Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area
- Blue Wall Preserve
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Not just mountains
While preserving the state’s mountain beauty remains a priority, the trust is also heavily involved with protecting Carolina Bays, a distinctive wetland feature found in counties between the Midlands and the coast. Only an estimated 10% of the bays remain, and the trust is actively working to preserve sites such as Dalzell Bay in Sumter County.