One of the nation’s premier transportation companies is permanently protecting more than a thousand acres of Lowcountry land northwest of Charleston with a conservation easement in partnership with the Lowcountry Land Trust.

Norfolk Southern Corporation, which provides rail shipping services for goods and materials across the U.S., adds the latest tract of land, which includes Coldwater Branch Stream, to its already sizable 15,000+ acres of protected land in the Lowcountry, more than a tenth of the Lowcountry Land Trust’s total portfolio. 

“It’s part of our sustainability strategies,” said Josh Raglin, Norfolk’s chief sustainability officer. “One of the pillars of our company is nature-based solutions. How can we work with nature to find more creative solutions?”

The Coldwater Branch project has been in planning and permitting stages for about five years, Raglin said, but construction started in 2022. The project will restore more than six miles of streams and 1,105 acres of wetlands and adjacent upland buffers. Restoration efforts include closing drainage ditches, reestablishing meandering stream channels, replanting streamside vegetation, rebuilding flood plain and groundwater connections and repopulating native plant species like sweet bay, pond cypress, black gum and more. More than 300,000 native plants will be planted, representing 23 distinct species of native vegetation. 

Cumulative and downstream benefits will be seen over time, as effects of improvements to the headwater stream continue to build. Water quality will improve, and impacts from flooding in downstream communities like the nearby Four Holes Swamp and the greater Edisto River Basin will be reduced. Norfolk has also been stripping areas of certain pine trees and replacing them with the hardier native longleaf pine. 

“The land is so important,” Raglin said. “What we have out there is so unique. What was once a 90-million-acre longleaf pine forest across the Southeast is not only about 4 million acres. It’s a really diverse ecosystem, almost as diverse as the rainforest. We’ve restored 2,000 acres of longleaf so far and enrolled more than 10,000 acres for the forest carbon project.”

Wetland mitigation area of Brosnan Forest – provided by Norfolk Southern

The vast majority of that came from the company’s first conservation project in partnership with the Lowcountry Land Trust, the Brosnan Forest Conservation Easement, northwest of Charleston. Beginning in 2008, the project protected 12,400 acres of land, one of the largest-ever tracts of land protected by a corporation in the Southeast. 

“What I love about working with Norfolk is they’re such a big company, but they still have a deep and keen appreciation for the land they own,” said Lowcountry Land Trust CEO Ashley Demosthenes. “We’ve been honored and humbled to be partners with Norfolk since their first conservation easement, which is still the largest in our portfolio … It’s certainly a jewel in the crown.”

Norfolk Southern, is now based in Atlanta but was started in South Carolina in 1827. The wood from the Brosnan Forest, the site of the company’s first major conservation effort, was used as timber in the 1800s for Norfolk rail operations, Raglin said. The forest was made into a demonstration forest in the 1920s to show company partners the importance of conservation. The company has owned the soon to be protected Coldwater Branch land since the 1830s. 

“For them to take a stand and put this land under conservation to demonstrate the importance of the environment … they were banging the sustainability drum long before it became part of our modern vernacular,” Demosthenes said. “They’re to be commended for that.”

Demosthenes said the protection of the land also protects the stories of the people who once lived off of it. 

“Generations of people have hunted these properties and grown crops on this land,” she said. “It’s about the people, the habitats, and a very deep connection and love for the land. It’s remarkable — and I’ve been doing this a long time — it never ceases to amaze me how strong that desire is.”

Funding for the Land Trust’s efforts primarily comes from Charleston County Greenbelt Program and the S.C. Conservation Bank. In many cases, land purchased for conservation is bought for a fraction of the overall easement value. 

Longleaf pine shelters the largest population of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker – provided by Norfolk Southern

Nearly 3 million acres of land are protected in South Carolina by various entities, according to reports. A bill filed by S.C. Sen. Chip Campsen in February would help the state move closer to its goal to double that number by 2050. The S.C. Conservation Enhancement Act would provide resources and funds to the S.C. Conservation Bank to continue its efforts in protecting land and dedicate a portion of the sales tax revenue from sporting goods to capital improvements on public lands owned by several state entities. 

But Norfolk’s sustainability efforts go beyond just land conservation. The company’s dedication to rail, which generates 75% lower carbon emissions than shipping by truck, also relieves highway congestion and reduces wear on public infrastructure. Norfolk is taking more than 200,000 trucks off Interstate 26 each year alone, and the number has steadily climbed annually, according to a statement from the company. 

“What we have now is this crushing trifecta of increased cargo volumes, the dysfunction of the roads themselves  — they’re in need of billions of dollars in improvements — and just additional automobile traffic and population growth,” Dana Beach, founder of the state Coastal Conservation League, said in a previous City Paper report. “All that adds up to … what I would bet any amount of money is by far the No. 1 source of toxic air pollution, dwarfing anything else. I can’t imagine what else would come close.”

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