By Harriet McLeod
JOHNS ISLAND, S.C., Sept 30 (Reuters) - A group trying to
preserve the centuries-old Angel Oak near Charleston, South
Carolina, is racing against a fall deadline to raise the $3.6
million needed to protect surrounding land from development that
environmentalists contend would harm the tree.
The Angel Oak, with a massive canopy stretching more than
1,889 square yards (1,580 square meters) and trunk of more than
25 feet (7.6 meters) in circumference, has drawn generations of
visitors to Johns Island near historic Charleston.
In less than two months, the Lowcountry Open Land Trust has
collected almost $700,000 from more than 9,000 donors. With
local governments contributing additional money toward the
purchase, the land trust still has about $500,000 left to raise
by Nov. 21.
Many donations were dropped into jars at local Piggly Wiggly
grocery stores, Director Elizabeth Hagood said, but some funds
have come from as far away as South America.
"It's amazing the connection people have to this tree," she
said. "It's very passionate."
Named for 19th-century rice and cotton plantation owner
Justus Angel, the oak stands 65 feet (20 meters) high and is
estimated to be between 400 and 500 years old.
While it is not the oldest or the biggest tree in South
Carolina's low country, the grandeur of its weighty branches
draws about 36,000 people from around the world each year, said
Cam Patterson, director of special facilities for the city of
Charleston, which owns the Angel Oak and the small park around
The tree also has historical significance, Hagood said.
"All during segregation, the Angel Oak was the only public
place on Johns Island that was not segregated," she said.
"People didn't have air conditioning then, and it was a cool
place for a church picnic."
The fundraising effort is part of a fight that began in
2008, when about 40 acres (16 hectares) of forest land around
the tree and park were slated to become a large commercial and
Development pressure is strong on the once-rural island,
whose roads lead to multimillion-dollar beach houses, Hagood
Samantha Siegel, a 31-year-old waitress, said she decided to
try to stop the building plan when it appeared to threaten the
tree she visited each day on her way to work.
"This was my happy place, my sanctuary, the only place that
ever felt like home," she said.
Siegel co-founded a nonprofit organization called Save the
Angel Oak, began a petition drive against the development and
called on city leaders and environmental groups to take action.
"Nobody really listened to me at first," she recalled as she
sat on a bench near the tree last week. "They all said it's a
done deal, there's nothing we can do, good luck. It was the
penniless nature girl versus the rich developers."
Her nonprofit and the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation
League sued to block developer Robert DeMoura's application to
fill wetlands for the project. A botanist with the conservation
group said filling the wetlands and cutting surrounding forest
would alter the water table and disturb the oak's shallow,
wide-spreading root system.
As part of a settlement last spring after the property fell
into foreclosure, the bank that took ownership, Coastal Federal
Credit Union, agreed to let a local trust buy 17 acres (7
hectares) of land near the Angel Oak, said Dana Beach, executive
director of the Coastal Conservation League.
Charleston County voted in July to contribute $2.4 million
toward the purchase. The city of Charleston and the nearby beach
islands of Seabrook and Kiawah have also donated.
The land trust learned late last week that it has until Nov.
21 to secure the remainder of the money, after the bank granted
an extension from the original deadline of Monday.
Hagood said the land trust also hoped to conserve another 17
acres that the bank has optioned to a new developer but has not
yet begun raising money for that effort. The trust's planned
Angel Oak Preserve would be a forested park and site of
educational programs, she said.
"The Angel Oak is emblematic of the history of the
Lowcountry," Beach said. "It takes constant, persistent and
long-term effort to preserve this landscape."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Von Ahn)
© 2015 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.