November 25, 2020

Anna Mitchell

Champion of Upstate SC environmental causes takes lead at Greenville’s Lake Conestee preserve

GREENVILLE — Birders recently spotted an 8-inch tall, white and brown bird with a dappled breast at Lake Conestee Nature Preserve.

It was a sage thrasher, and it wasn’t supposed to be there.

The avid group of naturalists who haunt the bog walks, dirt paths and observation decks of this 406-acre wilderness less than a mile from Interstate 85 confirmed the little brown bird, indigenous to the western U.S. plains, had stopped over. It was the 222nd bird species identified within the preserve.

That, said Michael Corley, the incoming executive director of the nonprofit Conestee Foundation, is why the nature preserve exists. On Jan. 1, Corley, an environmental attorney, will take the reins of the organization, which has owned Lake Conestee Nature Preserve for 20 years, including a 128-year-old dam across the Reedy River, the reservoir it has created and hundreds of acres of former farmland around it.

“It is the wildest place in Greenville,” said Corley, speaking to The Post and Courier from the preserve’s Reedy River pedestrian bridge. “That’s what the Conestee Foundation calls it.”

Corley, 39, is well-known in Upstate environmental advocacy and smart-growth circles as the region’s director of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project. Cases he has been involved with include the Bramlett Road contamination site in downtown Greenville, residents fighting spot residential development in rural areas to the county’s north and south, and efforts to protect an endangered wetland grass, the Bunched Arrowhead, outside Travelers Rest. He has 10 large, multi-year cases still going and teaches environmental law at Furman University.

“The amount of woods lost in this central band of Greenville County is unbelievable,” Corley said.

Originally from Clinton, Corley got an industrial engineering degree from Clemson before studying law at the University of South Carolina. He returned to the Upstate in 2014. In six years, he said, he has observed rapid urbanization.

With visitors now exceeding 100,000 annually, the Conestee Foundation operates the preserve in southern Greenville on about $300,000 each year with its executive director, two or three educators, a development director and a small crew that maintains the preserve’s grounds and 15 miles of trails. Grants pay for special things like the boardwalks, bridges and birding towers that dot the preserve’s landscape, said Bill Bridges, the foundation’s board chairman.

Corley wants to increase educational programming at Conestee and raise awareness for the preserve’s ever-expanding benefit to the region’s wildlife. He wants to do more fundraising, too. The foundation has raised about $14 million in 20 years from public partners and philanthropic organizations, and it asks patrons to pop $3 in a can when they visit. He also has to manage the surge of visitors unwittingly damaging the space.

“We could almost be doomed by our own success,” Corley said.

At the same time that Corley is taking over this wild backyard to urban Greenville, he also assumes responsibility for one of the region’s most important environmental recovery sites.

Lake Conestee is essentially a football-stadium-sized bathtub, whose lake-bottom sediments hold safe the byproducts of 90 years of industrial production upstream, said environmental scientist Dave Hargett. Greenville was the global leader in textile manufacturing at one time.

The condition of the dam holding it all in is “technically poor,” Hargett said, because of its age and uncertainty about its structural integrity.

The Conestee Foundation signed an agreement with the S.C. Department of Environmental Control for the lake and dam’s management in 2007, and a study completed late last year recommends the old dam, circa 1892, be reinforced with a second, $65 million dam. As for who will pay for it, Bridges said the foundation is in “active discussions with interested parties.” So far, none of the money has been raised, though the state Legislature initially budgeted $1 million for the project earlier this year before the coronavirus pandemic suspended new spending.

“Everybody agrees something needs to be done,” Bridges said. “Conestee doesn’t have the money to do it.”

Hargett is the Conestee Foundation’s outgoing director, having served in that role since 2010. He was instrumental in its founding and is the preserve’s biggest advocate and living historian. He will stay on as a consultant, having personally conducted much of the scientific analysis there.

“I’m incredibly blessed to have been part of something that will last a lot longer than me,” Hargett said.

He spoke this week by phone during a break from building a ramp to the preserve’s latest bridge, dropped by helicopter on site with assistance from the S.C. National Guard.

Hargett, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and has conducted analysis on hundreds of hazardous sites across the country, calls himself “chief of the roughnecks” and works elbow to elbow with maintenance crews in the preserve.

“We no longer allow dogs on non-paved trails,” he called out to someone while on the phone. “You probably passed some signs.”

For decades, the Reedy carried wastewater away from industrial Greenville’s sprawling textile mills but also away from ordinary, everyday urban polluters, Hargett said. Dumping their waste into the Reedy before 1972′s Clean Water Act was legal and practical. A 1920 City Directory for Greenville lists a welding shop, an auto-parts maker and a tannery among businesses on Broad Street near the Reedy River. Upstream was the old Union Bleachery, now a Superfund site, and the former site of a Duke Power coal-gasification plant, now under DHEC scrutiny.

Typical hazardous waste sites have two or three nasty compounds from one source, Hargett said. Conestee covers a “smorgasbord” of 20th century industrial chemicals — 35 compounds that he says are driving risk — from thousands of sources.

This, Hargett said, drives Lake Conestee’s complexity.

It is also why Corley’s legal mind will be critical going forward, Bridges said.

“I’ve been impressed with him for years,” Bridges said. “First and foremost in terms of his work as an environmental attorney, he brings a great deal of enthusiasm for what we are doing. He loves the outdoors.”

Water quality now is “surprisingly good” in the Reedy River, Hargett said, and Lake Conestee holds a critical role keeping it that way. There is no swimming in Lake Conestee. No one kayaks there. DHEC bars any potential human contact with the sediment. But birds and other wildlife thrive, making Conestee a nationally recognized refuge with accolades coming from the Audubon Society and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, among others.

“It is a fascinating story of nature’s resilience,” Hargett said.

Thousands of schoolchildren visit annually for the preserve’s education programs. Corley said that, after years of raising money for SCELP’s legal fund, asking people to donate their time, talents and treasures to something of such obvious, visible benefit will be easy. His own interest in environmental issues started with a fifth-grade science camp at Jekyll Island, Ga.

“It’s still very vivid in my mind,” Corley said. “An experience like that can put you on a whole different path in life.”

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