Congaree National Park expanded: Our work with South Carolina’s local youth and legislators

Volunteer Chuck Schaeffer teaching on the boardwalk of Congaree National Park, South Carolina. Photo by Juli Jones.

Of the 50 states, South Carolina is not one often associated with land preservation. But that’s not the case this fall. A bill passed by Congress in October has granted part of the funding to expand the state’s only national park and the home of the nation’s largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest.

The move to expand Congaree National Park leaves many South Carolinians flooded with excitement about new outdoor recreation opportunities in Congaree’s wetlands and easier public access to the Congaree River.

For a middle school near the park, not only is the expansion good news, it is also the result of hard work from seventh graders.

“Kids got more and more into the Congaree trip — which is just 30 minutes away in our backyard,” Kelly Mill Middle School Teacher Juli Jones said. “Once they go down there they just fall in love with it. When the opportunity came up to help with expansion with Congaree, we were already there. We thought we’re the perfect people to talk about it.”

"When the opportunity came up to help with expansion with Congaree, we were already there. We thought we’re the perfect people to talk about it."

— Juli Jones, Kelly Mill Middle School Teacher

By adding 2,000 acres to the park, the expansion will unite the park, which currently exists in two separate neighboring units.

Connecting the eastern and western portions of the park, the land is almost completely acquired and will offer a refuge to songbirds, owls, woodpeckers, white-tailed deer, otters and raccoons. The addition will also create protection for trees including dwarf cypress, large swamp cottonwoods and rare water hickories. Congaree needs about $1.37 million to complete the acreage.

Class on the Boardwalk in Congaree National Park, South Carolina. Photo by Juli Jones.Jones’ students showed admirable dedication to the park. Not even of voting age, they wrote to South Carolina U.S. legislators Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Jim Clyburn expressing their love for the park and all its opportunities.

The Wilderness Society, The Trust for Public Land, and The Friends of Congaree Swamp backed the young citizens in increasing the parks’ acreages through outreach to South Carolina citizens and local representatives.

“It’s wonderful that kids are getting in touch with nature while getting involved with local government,” said Frank Peterman, an eastern forest program director for The Wilderness Society. Peterman worked with Rep. Clyburn to push for the funding.

Listen to our own Frank Peterman on the KFAI Al McFarlane radio show discussing the increasing role of the African American community in conserving wild lands.

Note: Peterman’s interview begins 4 minutes into the show.

“Senator Graham and Representative Clyburn made expanding this national park a priority for the people of South Carolina,” Peterman added.

Jones has been teaching science to seventh graders at Kelly Mill Middle School since it opened five years ago. A Congaree veteran, she remembers visiting the place as a child, long before it gained the title as a national park in 2003. Given the school’s proximity, Jones sees this as a wonderful opportunity to give her kids some real hands-on learning.

“For many of these kids, this is their only experience in nature,” Jones said.“Most of my kids come from single-family low-income homes, and they have to go inside after school just to be safe. They don’t know what outdoor clothes are, and they don’t understand the concept of wearing shoes you can get dirty.”

Jones shared a story of Dominik White who is now an 8th grader at Kelly Mill Middle.

Dr. David Shelley teaching floodplain cycles in the Congaree National Park, South Carolina. Photo by Juli Jones.“In his letter he used the phrase ‘the green heart of SC’ to describe the park and it was just so profound,” Jones said. “These are things that are typical of the thoughts students have, most people don’t think of 7th graders as being deep. I told him and I told his father it was stroke of genius.”

Since there is still more than $1 million needed for the park to acquire the entire acreage, incoming seventh graders will have the opportunity to get out their paper and pencils again.

“We have enjoyed it so much,” Jones added. “The saddest part to me is that it would end. I’m hoping after we get this land, they will come up with another tract of land that we can start supporting.”

Read more here about the growing movement of African Americans who are getting their hands green.

photos:
Volunteer Chuck Schaeffer teaching on the boardwalk of Congaree National Park, South Carolina. Photo by Juli Jones.
Dr. David Shelley teaching floodplain cycles in the Congaree National Park, South Carolina.
Photo by Juli Jones.
Class on the Boardwalk in Congaree National Park, South Carolina. Photo by Juli Jones.

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