Lowcountry residents en route from Beaufort to Charleston on U.S. 17 drive right through its beating heart. And although passing motorists may look quickly left or right to admire the sweeping views, most don’t fully appreciate what they’re seeing.

The million-acre ACE Basin – named for its three river systems, the Ashepoo, Combahee and South Edisto – represents one of the largest undeveloped estuaries on the East Coast. It consists of 350,000 acres of diverse habitats ranging from upland hardwoods and forested wetlands to tidal marshes, barrier islands and beaches. Its unique estuarine system hosts such endangered species as bald eagles, wood storks, ospreys, loggerhead sea turtles and shortnose sturgeon.

Al Segars, a veterinarian for the Marine Resources Division at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, told Bluffton Rotarians that the ACE Basin’s beauty, wildlife and natural resources significantly enhance the overall quality of life for Lowcountry residents. But he emphasizes the danger of taking its gifts for granted.

“We live in a great place, and people are going to want to come here,” Segars said. “The question is how do you handle that growth and development? How do you manage it? It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be cheap, but it has to be done right.”

The ACE Basin is today designated as a world-class ecosystem under the Nature Conservancy’s “Last Great Places” program.

But Segars said that tidal swamps along the basin’s three rivers were clear-cut and diked in the 1700s to develop rice farming that made coastal South Carolina one of the wealthiest places on earth. When the rice culture declined more than a hundred years later, many of the area’s plantations were purchased and turned into hunting retreats, and the new owners were able to manage the former rice fields in ways that encouraged wildlife to thrive.

The ACE Basin Task Force formed in 1988 as a local reaction to developers’ plans to build a thousand-home residential resort and marina on the Edisto River. Private landowners in the area joined forces with The Nature Conservancy, the Coastal Conservation League, Ducks Unlimited and the federal and state governments to defeat the proposed development.

Public and private interests have continued to work together since that time to preserve the area’s extraordinary resources. A key goal is to ensure that traditional uses – farming, forestry, recreational and commercial fishing and hunting – will continue.

Segars said that the ACE Basin offers opportunities for fishing and hunting, boating, hiking, bicycling, bird watching and other nature study.

A key goal for ACE Basin supporters is to make certain that future generations appreciate everything that the vast ecosystem has to offer. To reach that goal, Segars said, it’s vital to focus on young people who increasingly are growing up without being exposed to their natural surroundings.

“If you don’t even come look at it, you won’t help to protect it,” he said.

Segars said that a number of Beaufort County schoolchildren have learned about the ACE Basin from trips on the state agency’s 45-foot catamaran Discovery, as well as through land-based programs. SCDNR staff leads hands-on science activities based on the Lowcountry’s marine ecosystem and resources, and students collect data and interact with marine organisms.

In additional to Segars’ work with SCDNR, he previously owned a private veterinary practice in Hartsville. Segars also works with the state agency focusing on the health of aquatic animals like shrimp and loggerhead turtles, and also on marine mammal standings’. He is also involved in the mariculture industry to help set protocols for shrimp catches and health criteria for imported seafood. Segar assists DHEC with the West Nile virus cases as well. Go to http://www.dnr.sc.gov/marine/turtles/ for more information on the SCDNR marine turtle conservation program.