The City Magazine Since 1975

Champions of Nature

Champions of Nature
October 2019
PHOTOGRAPHER: 

The Lowcountry’s environmental leading ladies have an agenda, and a plan to save natural places and ensure quality of life





The Stono Preserve, 881 acres owned by the College of Charleston along the Stono River in Hollywood and protected by a conservation easement through Lowcountry Land Trust. (Inset top to bottom) Lara Cantral, Ashley Demosthenes, and Sara Hartman.

Beneath bald cypress towering over the Francis Beidler Forest, a great horned owl swoops by on fierce, silent wings, so stealth the only clue is a whoosh from her wake. Further east, deep in the Francis Marion Forest, kayaks glide along Wambaw Creek, paddles dipping in the tannin-stained water as kayakers keep eyes peeled for the bright yellow flash of the Prothonotary warbler. On John’s Island, sun-weary beach-goers return from a day at Kiawah, where they’ve just witnessed dolphins strand-feeding at Captain Sam’s Spit. They stop to buy late summer beans at a local farm stand, then detour again at Angel Oak, marveling at its otherworldly span.

On one point regarding the environment there is no partisan debate: we are spoiled by the riches of our Lowcountry landscape. Majesty envelops us at every turn, from persimmon sunsets over Bulls Bay to the yawing vistas of the ACE Basin to endless longleaf pine forests, home to rare pitcher plants and endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, a keystone species on which 27 other species depend.

This natural bounty is the Lowcountry’s goose and its golden egg, enriching our lives and our livelihoods while luring more people here who also want to live beneath skies curtained with Spanish moss, by waterways that curl through calming marshscape. Who can blame them? New homes by the tens of thousands loom on the horizon, on swaths of former timberland slated for development. Perhaps the more appropriate question isn’t about blame, but balance. Who is looking out for the health and well-being of our natural landscape in the face of mounting pressures?

The answer isn’t one person, but a cohort. South Carolina benefits from a strong conservation ethos that has helped protect much of the Lowcountry, thanks in part to passionate duck hunters and organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and Audubon; and to leaders like Dana Beach, founder of the Coastal Conservation League; and to large landowners such as Peter Manigault and family and Charles and Hugh Lane. But just as development is altering our environment, the conservation landscape has changed. For the first time in Charleston’s long history of revering the land, the region’s foremost environmental organizations are all led by women.

“It’s not just that we are women,” notes Ashley Demosthenes, president and CEO of Lowcountry Land Trust. “It’s a passing of the torch from legacy leaders to the next generation.” Meet three women whose passion for the environment is matched only by their talent and determination to step up and lead the way.

Cantral (pictured at Folly Beach County Park) leverages her own expertise and that of her team and partners in other organizations “to make sure all voices are heard” when developing advocacy priorities and strategies.

Laura Cantral: Coastal Conservation League

An oceans expert with international experience in environmental policy, the League’s executive director isn’t afraid to dive deep

It seems fitting that the relatively new headquarters for the Coastal Conservation League is a repurposed flower shop on Spring Street—indeed, much is blooming there. “I love our new conference room, big enough to convene large groups,” Laura Cantral says, showing off the space outfitted with reconfigurable reclaimed wood tables. Forty or so people could easily gather here, a far cry from the small antebellum dining room that served as the board and meeting room in the League’s former headquarters on East Bay Street.

Cantral, a native of Mississippi where she went to college and law school, has settled into these new digs much like she has settled into her new role—with her own sense of style: collaborative, approachable, clear-eyed, pragmatic. After nearly 20 years in Washington, DC, many of them with Meridian Institute, working at the highest levels on ocean and coastal policy (including heading The Joint Ocean Commission Initiative and formerly serving as the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy’s associate director for governance), she knows how to problem solve, build consensus, and dive deep into complex issues. Sure, she can be characterized as an environmental policy wonk, but her warmth levels the playing field. Cantral isn’t interested in being the smartest person in the room; she’s interested in filling the room with equally bright minds focused on increased threats from climate change and development.

“My job is to take this organization, now celebrating its 30th anniversary, into the next chapter. I’m fine-tuning, not recalibrating. The Conservation League has a strong legacy that we want to extend, using all the resources in the advocate’s tool box to ensure continued success,” says Cantral, who follows the long tenure of founding director Dana Beach.

Cantral acknowledges that it’s an exciting time across the board—politically, socially, culturally, and in the field of conservation—to be a woman in leadership. But gender isn’t her primary lens. “I think about it more in terms of what I bring as Laura,” she says. “My first go-to is to find common solutions, to be a good listener and seek common ground. But I’m also prepared to do everything I can to fight for the health of our natural resources and our communities.”

Her team includes experienced program directors working in four offices across the state, plus local food hub warehouse, GrowFood Carolina, addressing a broad spectrum of issues: land use and conservation; communities and transportation; land, water, and wildlife; energy and climate; and food and agriculture. Acknowledging the impacts of a rapidly changing climate and improving our resilience to those changes is an important framework for all the League’s efforts, she notes, and it’s going to take all hands on deck to tackle their urgent concerns, including flooding and sea level rise, protecting against the development of vulnerable coastal geography, and fighting offshore oil and gas drilling.

“I like thinking about connections and getting things done. I know how to collaborate and leverage the collective strengths of the conservation community, and then we all find our sweet spot and get a bigger impact than we could have otherwise,” Cantral says. Which means that spacious new conference room she helped design is getting good use. “In many ways I see the Conservation League’s role as being a convener, a center of gravity. We can help broker the difficult discussions we need to have.”

Coastal Conservation League

Mission: To protect the South Carolina coastal plain by advocating for comprehensive solutions to environmental challenges

Founded: 1989

Big Wins:

• Led the effort to pass the Energy Freedom Act, which will expand solar energy production and jobs in the state
• Halted offshore drilling and seismic testing by advancing local, state, and federal policies
• Worked with nearly 20 communities to pass bans on plastic bags and cups and Styrofoam to reduce pollution

Current Challenges:

• Addressing the impacts of sea level rise and flooding
• Ensuring a healthy balance between development and land conservation
• Supporting local food and farms

Get Involved: coastalconservationleague.org/how-to-help/

Before working with LLT, Demosthenes (pictured at the 881-acre Stono Preserve in Hollywood) cut her teeth at The Nature Conservancy, and like her colleagues profiled here, embraces an ethic of collaboration.

Ashley Demosthenes: Lowcountry Land Trust

With deep roots in the Lowcountry, and an equally deep passion for its natural beauty, Demosthenes has her boots on and her sleeves rolled up, ready to protect some land

“I’ve always had a feisty spirit,” says Ashley Demosthenes, who grew up jumping off docks and swimming in the saltwater creeks of the Lowcountry. She knew from an early age that fighting and caring for her beloved backyard would be her calling. She majored in environmental studies at the University of Vermont and thought that law school might be her path, until a summer internship at what was then the Lowcountry Open Land Trust broadened her vision. “It was the early 1990s, the ACE Basin work [the preservation of 250,000 acres in the basin of the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto rivers] was just getting its legs, the region was growing, and people were becoming aware that development was coming and things were changing,” she recalls.

After college and a brief stint working in a law firm, Demosthenes met Mike Prevost, who worked for The Nature Conservancy coordinating all the moving pieces and parts of land acquisition for the massive ACE Basin project. “I interviewed with Mike, then began working alongside him in what we called our ‘Oval Office’—this majestic plantation house overlooking the Hollings ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge—and never looked back.” From the ACE Basin, Demosthenes and Prevost expanded The Nature Conservancy operations to McClellanville, and by 2002, she was negotiating land acquisition and conservation easements across the state for The Nature Conservancy.

“I fell in love with the work, with the community of people doing conservation work, people like Charles Lane and his family—true pioneers,” she says. “I just couldn’t get enough of it. Driving from Charleston to McClellanville every day, I could see the creep of Mount Pleasant toward Awendaw, which fueled my conviction even more.” Demosthenes adopted what she called a “sponge attitude”—learning everything from GIS mapping and logistics coordination to document research and cultivating landowners. “Whatever hole needed filling, I was there to fill it. It gave me an appreciation for all steps of the [land protection] process.”

After 16 years with The Nature Conservancy, she became director of land conservation for the Lowcountry Open Land Trust, which negotiates and holds land easements, then headed by Elizabeth Hagood. “Elizabeth was a strong female leader and mentor for me,” says Demosthenes, who is proud to carry on that legacy of strong female leadership. Two years later in 2015, Demosthenes became the president and CEO.

“I credit Elizabeth for seeing the opportunity to build our capacity, and I’m expanding on her work. Over the last six years, we’ve doubled in size in terms of staff and budget, in response to what we feel is the need in the community for a strong land trust,” she says. Buying the first 17 acres surrounding Angel Oak in 2013 was one of the first times LLT had purchased property outright. To date, LLT has protected more than 143,000 acres across 17 counties along the coastal plain, with a goal of hitting 150,000 acres this year.

Demosthenes is also leveraging her tireless enthusiasm to broaden LLT’s base and connect more people to the land. “We can protect land all day long, but if people don’t understand the ‘why’, then we’re dropping the ball,” she says. To that end, she and her team have created the Business Leadership Council to give executives of large local and global entities a place at the table, “sort of a Conservation Chamber, if you will,” she explains. Their biannual “Flourish” forum seeks to engage a broader constituency of citizens and small business leaders at the grassroots level, and their Soul of the Lowcountry advisory group is designed to appeal to younger people.

“Our goal is to bring more people into the room and connect people to place,” she says. “Conservation is sexy. It also makes business sense and financial sense. We need to instill in the next generation a sense of community conservation,” she says, “which means thinking 24 hours from now and 24 years from now. The challenge is striking that balance to be effective in achieving our vision of making land accessible to people and wildlife.”

Lowcountry Land Trust

Mission: “To improve the health of the Lowcountry lands we love by connecting and protecting properties across the South Carolina coastal plain’s forests, marshes, and rivers.”

Founded: 1986

Big Wins:

• Brosnan Forest conservation easement (13,000+ acres) in 2008
• Angel Oak Preserve (36-acres) acquisition in 2014 (raised $7 million in public and private funds to purchase the land)
• Have reached 143,000 acres of total land protected

Current Challenges:

• Rapid growth of the Charleston region and keeping up with the pace of development
• National trends, such as syndicated conservation easements, that undermine honest, fair conservation

Get Involved: lowcountrylandtrust.org/get-involved/

Hartman (pictured here in Awendaw, in part of the Francis Marion National Forest that TNC stewards) brings more than two decades of experience to managing all conservation strategies for TNC’s statewide operation.

Sarah Hartman: The Nature Conservancy

Working from the mountains to the sea, Hartman oversees conservation strategies and efforts across ecosystems and beyond geopolitical boundaries

When your grandfather is an agronomy professor, you get dirt. “I grew up knowing more about soil than most 12 year olds,” says Sarah Hartman, director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy, whose grandfather taught soil science at Virginia Tech. “It’s an underappreciated field, really. All habitats depend on the geology of soil.” And so Hartman’s career as a conservationist evolved, literally, from the ground up.

With Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley as their backyard, Hartman’s family was always hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains; and she’d go on caving trips with her uncle. “Like a lot of people with outdoor interests, I thought I’d maybe become a marine biologist,” she says. But she changed course at Mary Washington College, where the environmental studies program coupled with a double major in religion broadened her perspective. “I learned there’s a social context to every challenge. You can’t just look at it from a scientific perspective. You have to consider what it means to people, to understand it from their world view. That appealed to me,” she says.

After college, Hartman moved to Key West with some friends. “We thought we’d work for a season, get our ya-ya’s out while we could,” she says. While there, she met Mark Robertson, who was starting a chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and hired her to assist. “The more I learned about my colleagues at TNC and their non-confrontational collaborative approach to seeking tangible, lasting results, the more I realized it matched my personal values,” she says.

Before she got too seduced by life in the Keys, Hartman transferred to TNC’s regional office in Chapel Hill, where she worked as office manager for the Southeastern region and earned a master’s in urban and regional planning from the University of North Carolina. After graduating, she saw a TNC job opening for the South Carolina chapter, where Robertson was now state director.

In 2000, she moved to Columbia to become a TNC land protection specialist, working alongside Ashley Demosthenes and Mike Prevost on projects from the ACE Basin to Winyah Bay. When the South Carolina chapter opened a Charleston office, Hartman and Demosthenes raised their hands. “We started with just me, Ashley, and two or three others; now we’re the Conservancy’s largest office in the state,” says Hartman, who for the past 12 years has served as director of conservation, overseeing the strategy, stewardship, science, and land protection efforts and a growing portfolio of easements.

“I really enjoy the vantage point that comes from working statewide, as well as regionally. Our solutions work with nature’s boundaries, not geopolitical ones,” she says. The Conservancy’s marine environment work, for example, partners with other TNC chapters and governmental agencies to work across the South Atlantic region, “because right whales or loggerheads are part of moving systems, and what happens off Florida’s coast or Georgia’s ports impacts all marine life and migratory patterns,” she says. “I enjoy plugging in with my colleagues across the Southeast, seeing how we can translate our ground-level work with our partners so that it is additive—so we can make big contributions on the regional level.” That same science-based, landscape-scale approach holds for protecting ecosystems across the Southern Blue Ridge and TNC’s longleaf pine initiatives.

During her 20 years in conservation, Hartman has partnered with every federal and state agency and local and regional environmental organization. “That’s how we started; The Nature Conservancy’s first project in South Carolina was with Audubon, 50 years ago. All these groups have collaborated in so many ways. It’s commendable, and highly unusual. My colleagues elsewhere remind me all the time that it’s not like this in other states,” says Hartman. She’s also glad to see women contributing to that momentum. “Women bring a leadership style that can be complementary—it’s great to see that have a prominence in South Carolina conservation.”

The Nature Conservancy of South Carolina

Mission: “To conserve the land and waters on which all life depends. Our vision is a world where the diversity of life thrives, and people act to conserve nature for its own sake and its ability to fulfill our needs and enrich our lives.”

Founded: 1969 in South Carolina
Big Wins:

• Protecting 20,000 acres on the Savannah River, the largest private land easement in the state
• Establishing the Goldbug Island Living Shoreline Project, a 240-foot-long reef for oyster habitat restoration and environmental benefits

Current Challenges:

• Coastal flooding and sea level rise
• Sustainable water for all of South Carolina
• Expanding TNC’s toolkit for protecting the state’s working forests

Get Involved: nature.org