IT SAVED A SOUTH CAROLINA SWAMP AND LED TO THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A NATIONAL PARK
That picture is the one I featured on my Facebook PIC QUIZ feature. It’s a porcelain sculpture of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker that is one of the extraordinary pieces in the Massee Lane Garden’s collection at Fort Valley, Georgia. It was sculpted by the world-renowned sculptor Edward Marshall Boehm.
The reason that the sculpture jumped out at me was that it triggered my memory of the story that I did while working at WIS-TV in Columbia, South Carolina in the early 1970s. There is a whole chapter in my memoir The Newsman about it.
A logging company was on the verge of cutting timber in the Santee Cooper Swamp, something young attorney Alex Sanders, a state representative and environmentalist, opposed the cutting so much that he introduced a bill in the South Carolina House to stop timbering in the swamp. Alex, who went on later to become Chief Justice of the South Carolina Court of Appeals and ended up before retiring as President of the College of Charleston, invited to meet him and some other environmentalists, including a representative of the Audubon Society one Sunday morning at a boat launching site at the edge of the swamp.
In a flotilla of small flat-bottomed boats, we roared off into the swamp looking for the believed extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Alex and his environmentalists friends said cutting the timber would certainly negatively affect survival of the big woodpecker, which had a wingspan of 30 inches. The Audubon Society man had a tape recorder with him that had an old scratchy record of the woodpecker’s call.
As I wrote in my memoir, “We came to a predetermined spot in the swamp and all outboard motors stopped and everyone was told to be real quiet. All of a sudden we heard the recording of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker crashing the silence. Then we heard all sorts of bird calls coming back to us. Out of that symphony of swamp birds, the Audubon Society declared that he heard the Ivory-billed Woodpecker answering back. I was in another boat shooting the event with a sixteen millimeter Bolex movie camera. My audio recorder was running when the bird racket broke out. Alex, who could see the bird man’s face from his boat, said that tears rolled down his cheeks as he claimed he had heard the bird. After we got back to the boat dock, I interviewed the expert and Alex. Monday night the report ran. Timbering in the Santee Swamp stopped.
“Recently, when I asked Alex about the event, he told me that he doubted that I ever did a more important story than the ‘woodpecker caper.’ He said that after I aired the story it literally went around the world. People sent him hundreds of newspaper clippings from around the country and a number of foreign countries. Not only did timbering stop in the swamp, but the whole environmental movement took off in South Carolina,ultimately leading to the establishment of the Congaree National Park.”
There have been other sightings of the Ivory-billed reported over the years, but none confirmed.