Aiken Land Conservancy and the City of Aiken Permanently Protect Shaws Creek Preserve

One of the most significant conservation projects in Aiken County history has just crossed the finish line. On May 15th, Aiken Land Conservancy, an accredited land trust, closed on a conservation easement that permanently protects 2,658 acres of land seven miles north of Aiken along Mason Branch Road and Shiloh Church Road.

The property, known as the Shaws Creek Preserve, includes and surrounds the 92-acre Mason Branch Reservoir, a water source for nearly 25% of Aiken’s residents. Additionally, the property includes frontage along Shaws Creek and several of its tributaries, unique rock outcroppings, numerous wetlands, and pine uplands undergoing restoration to a longleaf pine ecosystem. Extensive biological surveys have not yet been completed, but preliminary visits have already documented a number of rare plant and animal species.

Less than a decade ago, much of the property was slated to be developed into a golf and equestrian community with more than 4,000 homes. Such development would have threatened the quality of Aiken’s drinking water, prompting the City to acquire the property in 2020. In 2023, Aiken Land Conservancy was awarded $1.9 million from the South Carolina Conservation Bank to purchase a conservation easement on the property, which legally protects the property from intensive development in perpetuity. The funds used to purchase the conservation easement will, in turn, be utilized to restore the native longleaf pine ecosystem on the property and to create recreational opportunities on the property for the public to enjoy.

“This important effort is a testament to the visionary efforts of City Council who supported staff to pursue the purchase and preservation of this property,” remarked Aiken City Manager, Stuart Bedenbaugh. “To have this amazing natural resource protected in perpetuity thanks to the assistance of our partners, especially the Aiken Land Conservancy, is an accomplishment we can all take pride in. The grant from the South Carolina Conservation Bank provides us with much-needed funding to improve the habitat and provide for public recreation opportunities in this unique and beautiful natural resource.”

According to Raleigh West, Director of the South Carolina Conservation Bank, “This project is really special in that not only will it safeguard drinking water and protect wildlife, but it will also lead to the creation of a wonderful public nature park for the area. It’s a wonderful example of thoughtful, collaborative leadership by the City of Aiken that I hope other towns across this state will replicate.”

The Shaws Creek Preserve Conservation Easement represents the second collaboration between Aiken Land Conservancy and the South Carolina Conservation Bank to protect land along Shaws Creek. In 2022, the 601-acre Sylvia Cullum Whitney (Eureka) Preserve, which is adjacent to the Shaws Creek Preserve, was permanently protected. It, in turn, shares a border with a 394-acre conservation easement held by the Central Savannah Land Trust. In total, a more than 3,600-acre corridor of conservation lands now exists in northern Aiken County.

“The bold step the City took to purchase this land in the first place, coupled with amazing support from partners such as the South Carolina Conservation Bank, The Longleaf Alliance, and International Paper, made an idea first proposed by Dr. Harry Shealy more than 30 years ago a reality,” says Larry Comegys, President of Aiken Land Conservancy. “We look forward to expanding the conservation corridor along Shaws Creek even further in coming years to protect our most critical natural resource: water.”

“On behalf of City Council, I am thrilled to see our city take this step towards protecting our water quality and this beautiful piece of property,” stated Aiken Mayor, Teddy Milner. “I am honored to be part of a Council that is dedicated to preserving our natural heritage for future generations. This initiative not only conserves critical habitats, but also underscores the City’s commitment to fostering a healthier community for all through clean water, protected forests, and outdoor recreation opportunities. This is a success story we should all be excited about!”

The City plans to install trails, signage, and other improvements to allow the public to access the property in the next few years. In the meantime, Aiken Land Conservancy and the City of Aiken will collaborate on habitat restoration projects and work together to offer opportunities for the public to experience the Shaws Creek Preserve for themselves.