HARLEYVILLE, S.C. — Almost 40 years ago, Norman Brunswig and three others mapped out and built a boardwalk of more than a mile and allowing the public to see one of America's jewels — 1,800 acres of virgin cypress and tupelo gum black water swamp, considered the largest tract of its kind in the nation.
Now the 7,000-foot wooden boardwalk at the Francis Beidler Forest, Audubon Center and Sanctuary, weathered by time and storm, is deteriorating and the sanctuary has embarked on a multi-year effort to raise $1.7 million to replace it.
A $100,000 grant from MeadWestvaco Corp. announced Friday brought the campaign to over half its goal.
The forest, about 40 miles northwest of Charleston, is comprised of 17,000 acres, of which 1,800 is the tract of virgin land.
Children day campers walked along the weathered boardwalk on Friday, spying a turtle in the clear black water amid cypress trees. Not far away a doe and her fawn stared at people along the boardwalk. On another section of boardwalk, a Greenish Rat Snake lurked in a bush.
Brunswig, the sanctuary's executive director, said the forest is a little known jewel. The more than 350,000 people who have visited since it opened in 1977 seek it out but there's little indication the forest is here except for brown directional signs on nearby Interstate 26.
"You have, only about 35 miles from Charleston, this forest that has never been manipulated at all when you have had Europeans here for more than 300 years," he said. "It's amazing when you couple that with thousand-year-old trees and amazing songbirds — birds that people love to see and that are experiencing diminishing populations."
Brunswig, who as he walks the boardwalk greets every most every visitor and asks them where they are from, said there are things to be seen in the forest that can be seen few other places.
"Where else are you going to see a 1,000-year-old cypress tree? Where else are you going to see the Mona Lisa besides the Louvre?" he asked.
Work on the new boardwalk depends on fundraising but the hope is work begins next year. And while Brunswig will be overseeing the work, he won't be slogging through the water putting in pilings as he did almost 40 years ago.
The boardwalk will be wider, allowing people in wheelchairs to pass each other, and built to last 50 years.
When Brunswig started work at Beidler, the first priority was to make it accessible. Then the focus moved to acquiring land around the site to protect it from development that could affect the forest.
What began as a 3,400-acre tract is now 17,000 acres with additional nearby land protected with conservation easements.
Kenneth Seeger, president of land management and community development for MeadWestvaco, said the company has always had an appreciation for forests and the natural world.
"We are hopeful that by stepping forward and helping Beidler who we have had a long relationship with, it will encourage other companies in the Charleston region to support their effort," he said.
On the Internet:
Beidler Forest: http://beidlerforest.audubon.org/