Ever since she was a child, Kate Parks Schaefer ’05 has been a tireless advocate for protecting the natural environment. As a 12-year-old, she participated in annual sea turtle counts on the coast of South Carolina, her adopted home.
“That was my initial hook and entrée into environmental work. I did that every summer, and I still volunteer with the turtle patrol. That led to a real interest in coastal land protection. [Turtles] are threatened because of habitat loss. What’s the leading driver of coastal loss? It’s us.
“I grew up overseas and went to boarding school at Taft, and my family would vacation in South Carolina,” she says. “When it was time for college, I said, ‘I want to go to the Atlantic Coast Conference,” so Clemson University it was.
She never left.
“Clemson was a great choice for me,” she says. “It was a happy campus, a large sports school, and a larger school [than Taft]. I wanted that environmental focus, and Clemson is a land-grant school.” She was one of just 100 students chosen each year to participate in an internship program with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Hollings Scholar program was named for former South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings, an early voice for environmental protection in the state.
After Clemson, Schaefer joined the Coastal Conservation League, and recently joined the Open Land Trust, the first land trust in the state, founded in 1970 after organizers saw pollution threatening waterways, open spaces, and rural communities in South Carolina’s Lowcountry. As the OLT’s director of land protection, Schaefer works with the “three-legged stool” of environmental protection: zoning, infrastructure, and land protection. She works with local landowners and government officials to protect vulnerable areas along the coast and in the region.
Her role has taken on new urgency as the world’s climate continues to warm.
“Land conservation is a solution today and tomorrow for the climate change conversation. Working farms and forests, if protected, will serve as carbon storage. Small working farms, without crazy emissions from industrial agriculture and transportation, help us reduce our carbon footprint. Land conservation protects the most vulnerable places. The challenge is how do you do both at scale with limited resources. Grants to apply for land conservation are limited. We have to stretch those funds as far as we can,” she says.
Schaefer says that the desirable real estate on the coast of South Carolina is emblematic of the challenges facing those seeking to protect natural areas and reduce global climate change.
“This is where the climate change and urban growth conversations merge,” she says. “Flood-prone lands are now being sought after for development—the ‘good’ real estate is gone. When marginal lands are developed, the next cry is to build a sea wall or engage in expensive disaster recovery. Protecting undeveloped landscapes is a proactive way to protect the floodplain and the communities that surround it,” she says.
“I was thinking how much the environmental landscape has changed in 30 years. That is in large part due to Dana Beach and the Coastal Conservation League. Beach [parent of Taft graduate Nellie Beach ’08] founded the Coastal Conservation League in 1989 and served as the executive director for 28 years. I was able to intern for the League during college, and then Dana hired me two weeks after graduation. I worked in various capacities for the League for nine years, and it was incredibly formative to my conservation worldview, just like the League was formative to environmental policy that has shaped South Carolina.”
What’s next for Schaefer? The ambitious goal of working with other land trusts in the state to create a coastal greenbelt to add to the 315,000 protected acres of valuable waterways in the ACE Basin. Located between Charleston and Beaufort, the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto rivers combine to form the ACE Basin, a significant portion of which drains into the Saint Helena Sound in Beaufort County. Land conservation will protect additional acreage, drinking water, and endangered species, as well as store carbon.
“Environmental work in South Carolina is solutions-oriented: we are a small but passionate community that works together to find solutions,” Schaefer says. “This requires community organizing and meeting people that approach conservation from all sides and may not even call themselves conservationists initially. The people I have met doing this work have enriched my life, and we have been united because we care about a place. If our future is to be a healthy, prosperous one, we need to have healthy, thriving, rural areas, and one way to do that is land conservation.”
—Bonnie Blackburn-Penhollow ’84