Just off International Drive, there is a hidden gem for nature enthusiasts, hunters, bird watchers and people who simply enjoy the outdoors.
It’s the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve, a nearly 10,500-acre wonderland filled with hundreds of different flora and fauna species.
Across the state of South Carolina, there are 76 heritage preserves that are managed by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). DNR botanist Keith Bradley said Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve has more rare plants than any of the preserves in the state.
“Lewis Ocean Bay is just an absolute gem in biodiversity,” Bradley said.
It is because of that biodiversity that members from NatureServe made a visit to Horry County last week as part of the nonprofit’s Network Van Tour, a campaign to highlight how biodiversity can be sustained.
“Lewis Ocean Bay is a really interesting ecosystem,“ said Sean O’Brien, CEO of NatureServe. “It’s a 10,000-acre site that has many federally endangered species and globally rare species.”
Of the nearly 200 bird species found in South Carolina, 144 of them have been seen inside Lewis Ocean Bay, including the red cockaded woodpecker.
Inside those near 10,500 acres are the world’s largest assortment of Carolina bays, 23 to be exact.
“Geologically, these Carolina bays create interesting habitats for both plants and animals that are found in other places because of the geological formation,” O’Brien said.
The Network Van Tour will last at least a year, O’Brien said, and it will encompass all 50 states and many parts of Canada. Throughout this journey, data is constantly being updated while NatureServe works with DNR and similar departments across the country to further understand regional biodiversity and how to improve conservation efforts.
“The reason why we collect this data and do these analyses is to affect the conservation,” O’Brien said. “Getting out into the field and appreciating the people for the hard work that they do. They are out there and rain and snow, cold weather and hot weather, collecting this information that can really only be collected by experts on the ground.”
O’Brien added that the information they collect not only benefits NatureServe but it also benefits Lewis Ocean Bay.
Much like Lewis Ocean Bay, Horry County itself is incredibly biodiverse. Not 10 miles east of the preserve is the Atlantic Ocean and the ecosystems that sit on or near the coastline. Further inland from the preserve lie the intricate systems of the Waccamaw, Pee Dee and the Little Pee Dee rivers. It’s diverse enough for O’Brien to call Horry County a “globally important county.“
“It houses species like Venus fly traps and other carnivorous plants,” O’Brien said. “It’s also home to a large population of the red cockaded woodpecker. The work the DNR is doing to manage this long leaf pine forest is also significant throughout the entire Southeast because it was once a widespread kind of ecosystem and it’s much more restricted. Therefore, a lot of species’ habitat has been lost. The work that’s being done here is really globally significant.”
For South Carolina DNR Director Robert Boyles, his message to Horry County residents about the preserve is simple.
“Come visit,” Boyles said.
That message extends to all South Carolinians.
“[DNR] owns around 300,000 acres of land and manages on behalf of the 5.1 million people that live in South Carolina,” Boyles said. “We want to provide whether you want to take your dog out and walk through the woods, whether you want to talk to a turkey during turkey season, whether you want to look for the elusive red cockaded woodpecker or listen to owls talk.”
Boyles noted that during the pandemic and in lockdown people were “clamoring to get outside.” The director noted that places like Lewis Ocean Bay and other nature points of interest such as Francis Marion National Forest, Sumter National Forest and the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge are places where people can find peace amidst turbulent times.
“[These] properties exist so people can come get outside, recenter themselves and find their footing in very, very uncertain and anxious times,” Boyles said.