When you turn onto Old Palmetto Bluff Road, you might think you’ve arrived at your destination. You haven’t. Ahead of you is a three-mile jaunt through rows of Spanish moss-draped trees and only a fleeting glimpse of a house or two before you arrive in The Village.
It isn’t until you cross a wooden-plank bridge that arches over the headwaters of the May River that you know for sure that you’re within the 20,000 acres that comprise Palmetto Bluff.
“Palmetto Bluff has been blessed because from the first person who stepped foot here, everyone realized this was a gem," said Jay Walea, director of the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy.
Its natural beauty was never marred by industry or development. Instead, generations of caretakers managed the community’s resources so wildlife could thrive among healthy, diverse forests.
Palmetto Bluff has had only two owners in 100 years. The Wilson family bought it in the 1900s as a Southern retreat, then sold it to Union Bag Company in the 1930s for its lumber. The company immediately saw the beauty of the property and used it instead as a shooting preserve for its best customers.
Crescent Communities bought the property in 2003 and immediately set up the conservancy to serve as a resource and a watchdog as development began on the luxury community and resort.
“We make sure developers and builders do what they’re supposed to do,” Walea said. “They can make it pretty all they want, but I only care if it’s good wildlife habitat.”
For example, in the 300-acre portion in the May River headwaters, only 10 lots are drawn. Once Walea paced off the hundreds of feet of river and marsh buffers and inventoried significant trees and habitat, about two acres is left on each lot for humans to stake their claims. Houses and outbuildings are restricted to the small area he mapped out.
However, reviewing building plans is just a sliver of Walea’s job. He spends hours educating property owners, visitors and staff about the natural forces around them. He leads them through the woods, around ponds and up and down the river.
“I show them, ‘you know you love Palmetto Bluff. Here’s why.’”
He plays the part of naturalist perfectly, often attired in knee-high waders and camouflage-print clothing from his knees to his cap. His drawl is thick and his passion contagious. He greets residents by name and answers guests’ questions eagerly.
A woman stopped him on the sidewalk to ask him to help identify what she saw swimming in the river at sunrise. It was dark, so she couldn‘t see their coloring.
“Did they have long necks?” Walea asked.
“No, it looked like they had on little helmets,” she said.
“Oh, those were river otters, ma’am.”
“I can’t wait to tell my husband. Thank you!”
It’s not surprising that Walea is a walking Siri. He knows every acre of the property, having essentially grown up on it. His father worked for Union Camp, and as a boy, Jay Walea told his father he wanted to work there. He earned a forestry and wildlife management degree and he’s been there ever since.
Walea reminds people often that he and his team aren’t preservationists. They are active conservationists. They don’t leave the property untouched, but manage it to create the best habitat for wildlife and forests possible.
He and his crew carefully monitor populations of white-tailed deer and wild turkey as harbingers of a healthy habitat. Since white-tailed deer have no population-limiting factors other than starvation, disease and humans (often behind the wheel of a car), it’s up to man to curb population explosions. When the deer get too populous, Walea arranges hunts for interested property owners.
He also fights the constant battle against wild boar, a bane of any ecosystem.
They eat everything, run off every species of animal and even will attack humans.
He said the May River is a highway for them. “They swim just as well as deer, if not better. We’ll think we’ve eradicated them, but in a month or two, they’re back."
He and his small crew also routinely open up the forest understory with controlled burns. The burns accomplish two goals. The first is to create “edges” or open areas with lush young vegetation where animals can graze. The second is to help restore the longleaf pine forests that once dominated the Southeast. The fires clear away vegetation so wind-borne longleaf pine seeds can reach the soil to germinate.
Walea proudly pointed out in a recently burned area a fluffy green pine in its grass stage and another in its “rocket” growth stage.
Longleaf pines once dominated the landscape east of the Mississippi. The trees soar up to 100 feet and live up to 300 years. But settlers cleared millions of acres of forests for agriculture and used the lumber for ships and railways. By the 1920s, the trees were nearly gone, partially because of successful fire suppression, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
The conservancy wants to bring those forests back, along with the native wildlife that prefer it.
At the same time, Walea educates the people within Palmetto Bluff how to co-exist with the creatures around them.
He teaches security staff how to handle wildlife encounters and advised hospitality staff how to steer clear of them.
He reminds residents to treat alligators like wild animals and to keep their pets on leashes.
“Alligators won’t bother us because we’re not on their food chain. But our pets are,” he said.
Dogs make it easy for alligators because they splash around at the edge of ponds. It’s like ringing the reptiles’ dinner bell.
Walea also talks a lot about snakes.
”Most people really don‘t like snakes, but we don’t kill snakes here,” Walea said. Instead, he shows residents how to make their yards less attractive to them.
“An inch or two of mulch is OK, but any more than that and it’s prime snake habitat. They are ambush predators. A snake will burrow down there for as long as two or three weeks waiting for a meal. We also remind people to look before they reach or step into vegetation. Space out your plants so you can see what’s around them.”
To further draw residents into their surroundings, he invites them to help with frequent research projects. An alligator-tracking project erased the fallacy that alligators don’t like salt water. They like it when it contains crab, Walea said, laughing. The monitoring system followed alligators on their frequent trips to the salty May River for a crabby snack. The research also mapped out how movement differs between male and female alligators. Males patrol their territories around mating season, but then wander off the rest of the year. Female alligators stay put in a single pond for a year or two before moving to another one.
It’s that constant immersion in nature that drives the philosophy of wildlife management amid the high-end development orchestrated by Crescent Communities, which developed Palmetto Bluff into the five-star destination it is today.
Before the first bulldozer arrived to create a village on the banks of the May River a decade ago, crews surveyed every single live oak limb in the area to ensure that not a single one would be removed during construction.
Today, live oaks dominate the village.
Walea is amazed by the property’s transformation from a rustic hunting enclave to the Palmetto Bluff of today.
“That village looks like it’s been there for a hundred years," he said.
So after all of his efforts to create vibrant wildlife habitat, he chuckles when a resident complains that a deer has made a salad bar out of her garden.
“What am I supposed to do about it? Deer got here first.”
And with the help of Palmetto Bluff Conservancy, they will be here forever.