How South Carolina’s Congaree National Park made me care

Fallen tree on Cedar Creek, Congaree National Park, South Carolina. Courtesy NPS.

Years before it beckoned visitors with the name Congaree National Park, my escape from reality was known as Congaree Swamp.

The word swamp might be a deterrent to some. In 2003, the land became the South Carolina’s first national park and went from being known as “the swamp” to Congaree National Park. But in the mid 1990s, I could not have cared less about what the place was called. My adolescent eyes saw a cypress wonderland. Exploring this place as a child changed the way I saw the natural world and ultimately lead me to where I am now – interning for The Wilderness Society, which includes National Parks among the lands it works to expand and preserve.

My parents, brother and I wandered through this evergreen sanctuary after church on Sunday afternoons. The ground squished below us as we took in what our backyard didn’t quite have to offer: numerous trails, dwarf cypress, large swamp cottonwoods and rare water hickories. We would occasionally see wildlife, mostly birds or lizards. My brother and I speculated about what lived under the boardwalk or in a rotting stump. Even on the hottest of days during the scorching South Carolina summer, the shade from the forest was sure to cool us off.

What I don’t think I realized when my family and I hiked around on those memorable Sundays so long ago was that this exploration wasn’t just mindless entertainment. This wasn’t just another video game or a pit-stop at a fast food restaurant. I learned trees weren’t just something to park your car under; they were part of something bigger.

I left South Carolina almost five years ago. Through my college years, though, I took time to go back to my sacred spot to volunteer and play. Now that I’m in our nation’s capitol, I’ve been given the opportunity to learn more about the land that first ignited my passion for conservation.

Green Anole in Congaree National Park, South Carolina. Photo by Amy Leist, Courtesy NPS.As of October, with the help of TWS, The Trust for Public Land and Friends of Congaree Swamp, President Obama and Congress granted the funding needed to increase the park’s acreage. This means the eastern and western portions of the park will be connected to give all its visitors easier access to the Congaree River. The land has come so far since it was just a monument that not nearly as many people visited. The park now stretches across 26,000 acres.

What excites me most about this funding are the hundreds of seventh grade students who were involved in the process. About half an hour’s drive from the park, there is a phenomenal woman named Juli Jones teaching science at Kelly Mill Middle School. She has taken it upon herself to show students the same wonderland I knew as a child. These students typically come from low-income, one-parent homes, and have a very limited access to nature. She is determined to open students’ eyes by taking them on field trips to Congaree and teaching them to love the science behind flood plains and watersheds.

Along with this crash outdoor course, Juli has also roped in a lesson in U.S. government. While exploring wildlife and experiencing nature in a new way, these students also backed the park’s expansion. They handwrote letters to Congress, particularly Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-SC) and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D – 6th) asking them to support the funding.

When I moved to Washington to work for conservation, I did not realize it would bring me right back to Carolina, promoting what first made me love nature. Knowing that South Carolina is making its only national park more of a priority gives me hope for my home state. Knowing that more people, youth in particular, now have better access to a place that changed the way I see nature gives me hope for my home planet.

Fallen tree on Cedar Creek, Congaree National Park, South Carolina. Courtesy NPS.
Green Anole in Congaree National Park, South Carolina. Photo by Amy Leist, Courtesy NPS.