By Glen McCaskey | Photos by Rob Tipton
Some of my fondest memories in the last 50 years come from the Sea Pines Forest Preserve. An early memory was from 1970, when I became ensnared in a net of thorns and brambles in what would become the preserve, then a mostly untrammeled wild tumble of forest, wetlands and wildlife.
Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser envisioned that this land would become a nature park and had given me the assignment to master plan it and make that and related nature dimensions happen.
Walking along a 130-year old rice dike, completely overgrown by a thick bed and tangle of thorny vines, I had stepped ahead, not being able to see underneath, where a portion of the rice dike had washed away. Suddenly I found myself falling several feet but jerked to a stop by a net of thorns that wrapped around me like a bird in a snare. It was not exactly the moment to envision suburbanites happily walking along nature trails and boardwalks, but it is still memorable.
A later memory was watching islander Raymond Enslow, up to his chest in Lake Joe, for hours building the first foot bridge to Fish Island, with a loaded revolver and holster strapped around his neck as he kept one eye on Old High Tail, a 9-foot gator with an injured tail that watched his every move at water-level just 10 feet away. And I still enjoy remembering that both big guys lived through the experience.
THOUSANDS OF VISITORS
Forty-four years later, Fraser’s dream of a large nature preserve in the middle of Sea Pines is not only reality but one that has 45,000 to 60,000 people a year exploring these 605 acres, 12,000 doing equestrian trail rides on 4-miles of bridal trails, thousands of others navigating the 4-miles of hiking trails, 2 miles of roadway trails, and 50 acres of four large lakes for kayaks, canoes and summer alligator and fishing cruises.
The preserve has scattered picnicking hideaways in addition to a recreational complex on Fish Island, and a planted 3-acre wild flower conservancy. Several wetland boardwalks, overlooks, and even a bike trail along the portion of old rice dike that collapsed under me are also features, along with just about all the wildlife the Lowcountry can offer.
Final plans were laid for the preserve around 1970 when Fraser took the determinative step of placing restrictive covenants on the land. The preserve initiative provided profound, yet subtle, underpinnings to the environmental ethic and also an early branding strategy of Sea Pines as it moved into its era of national and international recognition.
In view was the objective of moving Sea Pines away from the stereotypical non-distinction of being just another East Coast beachfront and golf development and into the larger perspective of being more like a nature and recreation park where people could vacation and live.
Parts of this strategy launched around this time included Lawton Stables, Heritage Farm and its Victory Garden plots, windmill, sugar cane mill and farmer’s shed, and the first bike trails on the island.
On the historic side, the Baynard Ruins were excavated by an archaeologist and an interpretive program put in place there, while in the forest preserve, the only fully preserved 4,000-year-old Indian Shell Ring on Hilton Head also received archaeological attention and was made a destination point within the preserve.
AHEAD OF ITS TIME
All this was a decade before “green marketing” came into vogue in the ‘80s, and several decades before “ecological tourism” became a niche market.
Telling the environmental, plus the historical and cultural stories of Hilton Head and the Lowcountry, became a thrust of the Sea Pines Forest Preserve experience. Those stories were articulated by park rangers who also hosted special events, gave nature walks on the beach and by the marshes and evening lectures at the old William Hilton Inn, the same sorts of things the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn does so well today.
These activities fanned the flames of entrepreneurship that brought aquatic dolphin tours, nature excursions, kayak rentals and many other environmental/historic off-shoots into the marketplace.
Of course, the economic engine that ultimately drove all of this was real estate. The bottom-line strategy behind the Fraser formula was that if vacationers found the multi-faceted vacation, family-oriented park-like experience at Sea Pines to be the delight it was intended to be, then this would also be a great place to work or retire. The strategy proved to be very successful, and right in the middle of the strategy, and of Sea Pines itself, the Sea Pines Forest Preserve was born.
Long-time islander Glen McCaskey has been deeply involved in the evolution of Hilton Head as a resort community since moving here in 1970. He was vice president of Sea Pines for the decade founder Charles Fraser grew the company from being the developer of the Sea Pines Resort to an internationally respected firm creating industry-changing ventures from the Caribbean to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. McCaskey oversaw the environmental and recreational planning, development and management for all company ventures during that period, apart from golf and tennis.
UPCOMING FOREST PRESERVE EVENTS
• “The Bonfire” at Fish Island: 4:30-7:30 p.m., Nov. 14, at Fish Island. The third annual fundraiser for the Forest Preserve Foundation.
• Thanksgiving Wagon Rides: Nov. 25-29 at Heritage Farm. Various times.
• 12th annual Fishing Tournament: 10 a.m.-noon Nov. 28
• Caramel Apple Festival: 1-3 p.m. Nov. 29, at Heritage Farm.