Nelson Byrd Woltz Selected to Lead South Carolina’s Angel Oak Preserve Planning Process

A handful of states are home to trees that can claim bona fide arboreal celebrity status, whether they are very old, very tall, very photogenic, or have played an outsized role in American history. Massachusetts has the Endicott Pear Tree, Louisiana has the Seven Sisters Oak, Georgia has the Jackson Oak, and California has a veritable mini-forest of famous woody specimens. In South Carolina, the best-known single tree is the Angel Oak, a majestic and massive southern live oak on Johns Island, Charleston County, which stands over 66 feet tall and stands 28 feet in circumference. In total, the shade produced by the mighty “Lowcountry Treasure” covers a staggering 17,000 square feet. The colossal tree, acquired by the city of Charleston in 1991 and presented as a historic site, is said to be between 400 and 500 years old.

Once endangered (more on that in a moment), Angel Oak is the centerpiece of a namesake 9-acre park on Johns Island operated by the City of Charleston. Going forward, Angel Oak will be further protected in a 35-acre nature reserve surrounding the park which, as announced this week, will be shaped by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects. As detailed in a press release from South Carolina conservation nonprofit Lowcountry Land Trust, the award-winning company, which has offices in New York, Huston and Charlottesville, Va., will lead a comprehensive planning process for the reserve. Angel Oak planned. The process is expected to begin this summer and include a series of public meetings, surveys, etc. with the aim of producing a finalized design early next year.

In a statement, Ashley Demosthenes, President and CEO of the Lowcountry Land Trust, praised Nelson Byrd Woltz for his “unique ability to connect people to each other and to special places through clever and intentional design.”

“The Angel Oak is truly a wonder of nature,” said Thomas Woltz, director of Nelson Byrd Woltz, in a statement released by the company.

“We are honored to have the opportunity to be a thought partner for the Lowcountry Land Trust and the regional community in protecting the powerful energy of this place, he added. “And we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to bring our design tools to revealing the stories of the communities that support the Angel Oak.”

As detailed by the Trust, the reserve is envisioned as a “passive, publicly accessible greenspace that conserves and enhances the integrity of Angel Oak and the surrounding ecosystem; creates a consolidated use of the park and preserves across protected property boundaries; honors the rural and cultural context of the territory; and provides an anchored and meaningful experience for all visitors. Planned features include walking trails, restrooms, and built-in educational information about the preserve’s signature live oak tree as well as South Carolina’s Maritime Islands. A new parking lot will also be designed to reduce traffic in the largely rural area and minimize compaction on the tree’s gargantuan root system.

The announcement that Nelson Byrd Woltz will lead the planning process is a milestone after a decade of grassroots activism led by Samantha Siegel, a local resident and project manager for the Lowcountry Land Trust. In 2008, she rallied the community and rallied allies to avert a Charleston City Council-approved mixed-use development on Johns Island – the fast-growing island is South Carolina’s largest and partially located/ zoned within the Charleston city limits – this would have endangered Angel Oak and destroyed countless acres of wetlands and interior forests. Initially a largely regional movement, Siegel’s Save Angel Oak campaign to stop the development of 600 homes eventually morphed into an international crusade to purchase the threatened land and protect it in perpetuity. The Angel Oak Effect, a Trust-led fundraising campaign launched to achieve this, raised $7 million in contributions from more than 12,000 donors.

“The grassroots effort to save this magnificent living oak tree and the surrounding ecosystem is a testament to nature’s power to capture our collective imagination, bringing us together in service to a higher calling,” Woltz said.

Charleston-based Robinson Engineering joins Nelson Byrd Woltz in the planning stages, while the larger reserve project is spearheaded by a small army of local players and community members that includes, in addition to staff and Lowcountry Land Trust Board, The Avery Center, Coastal Conservation League, Residents of Johns Island, City of Charleston, Charleston Parks Conservancy, Gullah/Geechee Nation, City of Kiawah, and The Progressive Club.

Further updates and information can be found here.

Louisa R. Loomis